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London’s trilateral security partnership with Washington and Canberra has been hailed at home as a boost for the UK’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda.
The Aukus agreement, unveiled on Wednesday, underlines Britain’s strategic tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region, set out in a government review of foreign and defence policy earlier this year. It also highlights the UK’s pursuit of deeper ties with allies to counter China’s growing military assertiveness.
Lord Peter Ricketts, the UK’s former national security adviser, said the pact, under which Australia has abandoned a $90bn deal to buy 12 conventional submarines from France in favour of a new agreement with the UK and US, “certainly puts substance into the Indo-Pac tilt”.
“It is essentially a political windfall for the government, as the Australians came to us,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Brexit. We could have done it as an EU member. But it’s a big strategic development.”
Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute, said: “The government knows that this will deepen hostility in Paris but simply cannot resist the political and technological benefits it will bring.
“It is certainly a genuine tactical victory for the ‘Global Britain’ claim, but its longer-term strategic impact on defence politics in Europe will have to be handled very carefully if it is not to damage other relationships.”
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, will meet Boris Johnson, his UK counterpart, in London on Friday for talks on how Britain could work more closely with the EU on defence and security.
The talks will seek to assess whether there is “fertile soil to restart our co-operation” with the UK, a Dutch official said.
The chaotic European evacuation from Afghanistan in recent weeks in the wake of the US withdrawal has given renewed urgency to a debate about whether Europe needs to develop an autonomous defence platform. Many EU member states believe the UK, given its military clout, must be a key partner to that effort.
Under the Aukus deal, Australia will procure at least eight nuclear-powered submarines from the US and UK. The three partners will also exchange knowledge on cyber, artificial intelligence, undersea technologies and quantum computing.
The design phase for Australia’s new nuclear-powered submarines is expected to take about 18 months and could involve either a US or the new British Astute class design.
Addressing MPs in the UK’s House of Commons on Thursday, Johnson said the pact would “unquestionably” create jobs in the UK.
“There will be an 18-month scoping exercise to establish where the work should go between the three partners. But clearly there are deep pools of expertise throughout the United Kingdom. I have no doubt whatever that it will bring hundreds of high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the kind that we want to see.”
British officials insisted the submarine project was “very much” a joint venture but were unable to give details on the extent of the UK contribution. “The UK will be part of the submarine scoping exercise because we have the manufacturing capacity,” said one. “It is likely that it will be US technology and UK manufacturing expertise.”
A UK diplomatic official sounded a note of caution. “Victory for Global Britain? It’s too soon to tell,” the official said. “We need first to see how and where the submarines really are going to be built, and whether this makes us strategically more secure or just piggy in the middle.”
Britain has built nuclear-powered submarines for more than 60 years and its main contractors, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, are well-placed to play a role, defence experts said on Thursday.
Sash Tusa, analyst at Agency Partners, said the US industry was fully occupied in building the country’s own submarine fleet and had no spare capacity. “This is potentially very positive in terms of smoothing the UK submarine supply chain through the 2030s to the next generation,” he added.
BAE which is building the Royal Navy’s Astute submarines at its site in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, said that as a “company with a significant presence in all three markets we stand ready to support the Aukus discussions as they progress”.
The company has a sizeable presence in Australia, with sales of £665m in 2020. It employs more than 4,500 people across the country and is building nine Hunter Class frigates for the Royal Australian Navy at a government-owned yard in Adelaide. The frigates are based on the UK’s Type 26 vessels.
Rolls-Royce, which has been the sole provider of propulsion for Britain’s fleet of nuclear subs, said it looked forward to “supporting the UK government in the initial scoping phase for this new endeavour”.
The company is working on engineering a nuclear reactor for a future attack submarine that could be relevant to the Australian programme.
Paris has reacted with fury to Canberra’s cancellation of the deal with France, and British officials conceded Australia had taken a diplomatic hit.
Ben Wallace, the UK defence secretary, defended Australia’s decision on Thursday, telling an audience at the DSEI industry show in London, that the country had wanted a “strategic step-change on capability”.
He said he understood France’s disappointment but that “fundamentally this was about an Australian decision to change its capability requirement”. Britain had first been approached by Australia in March, he said.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels
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