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AUKUS agreement

In September 2021 the UK, Australia and the United States announced a new security partnership called AUKUS. The agreement will see the three countries collaborate on new nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy and work together on areas such as cyber and artificial intelligence. The three countries said the agreement “will help sustain peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific.” For the UK, it furthers the UK’s proposed tilt to the Indo-Pacific, articulated in the Integrated Review of security, defence and foreign policy, published in March 2021.

The agreement came as a surprise, and there has been mixed reaction from the Indo-pacific region, with some countries, such as the Philippines, believing it will help address the military imbalance against China. Others, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, fear it could spark an arms race or heighten the risk of conflict.

Responding to concerns about China’s response, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said the partnership “is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power.”

Mr Johnson added that the US, Australia and the UK “also have a shared interest in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of navigation and freedom of trade around the world”.

China was not mentioned in the Joint Statement released by the leaders of the US, UK and Australia. However, commentators are united in believing that it was in part created to counter growing perceptions of a rising Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region.

The UK’s “tilt to the Indo-Pacific”

For the UK, AUKUS reflects the UK’s intention to tilt to the Indo-Pacific, as outlined in the Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The tilt is necessary, the Government says, because the region is “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.” Mr Johnson told MPs the partnership demonstrates “Britain’s generational commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific” and how the UK can help Australia “preserve regional stability.” A senior White House official described UK involvement in AUKUS as a “down payment” on their effort to engage more deeply with the Indo-Pacific.

Questions have been raised over how AUKUS might affect geopolitical tensions in the South-China Sea, including Taiwan.

The former Prime Minister, Theresa May asked Mr Johnson, what are the implications of AUKUS “for the stance and response the United Kingdom would take should China attempt to invade Taiwan?”

He responded that “the United Kingdom remains determined to defend international law, and that is the strong advice we would give to our friends across the world and the strong advice we would give to the Government in Beijing”.

UK naval activity in the South-China Sea

The UK has increased its naval exercises in the South China Sea over the last few years. HMS Albion conducted a US style freedom of navigation operation by the Paracel islands in August 2018, and in early 2019 the Royal Navy conducted two joint military exercises with the US Navy in the South China Sea.

At the end of September 2021, the UK sent a warship through the Taiwan strait for the first time since 2008 (HMS Enterprise, a survey vessel, navigated the strait in 2019). HMS Richmond, a frigate deployed with the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier strike group, sailed through the strait on a trip from Japan to Vietnam.

The Chinese military followed the vessel and were reported to have warned it away. The People’s Liberation Army also condemned the move saying it was behaviour that “harboured evil intentions”.

UK-China relations before the agreement

Over the last few years, the largely cordial relationship between the UK and China has deteriorated sharply.

In the previous two decades, regardless of the political make up of successive UK governments, the trend had been towards closer engagement and cooperation.

The high-point of UK-China relations was during the 2015-17 Conservative Government, when there was talk on both sides of a “golden era”.

However, growing controversy in the UK over the involvement of the Chinese multinational company Huawei in the UK’s 5G mobile phone network, along with mounting concern about the erosion of the “one country, two systems” status quo in Hong Kong, has dramatically changed the atmosphere between the two countries. Other important factors have been UK concern about Chinese secrecy over the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic and China’s human rights clamp-down against the Muslim Uighur population in the Western province of Xinjiang.

March 2021 sanctions

On 22 March 2021 the UK Government announced it was placing sanctions on four Chinese officials and an official body, in concert with the EU, Canada and the US, labelling those sanctioned as “perpetrators of gross human rights violations taking place against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang”.

Announcing the sanctions, the then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, told the House of Commons: “This is one of the worst human rights crises of our time and I believe the evidence is clear, as it is sobering”.

Mr Raab went onto say:

I’m sure the whole House will join with me in condemning such appalling violations of the most basic human rights. In terms of scale, it is the largest mass detention of an ethnic or religious group since the Second World War.

In response, on 26 March China announced it was imposing its own sanctions on nine UK citizens, including five MPs and two peers.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the UK’s decision to impose sanctions “flagrantly breaches international law and basic norms governing international relations, grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, and severely undermines China-UK relations”.

The spokesman added that the Chinese foreign ministry had summoned the British Ambassador to China to “lodge solemn representations, expressing firm opposition and strong condemnation”.

The BBC also reported that a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, later told a press briefing China was forced to act “in self-defence” in response to UK sanctions “based on lies”.

In September 2021, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, and Lord John McFall, the Lord Speaker, barred the Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Zheng Zeguang, from addressing the All-Party Parliamentary Group for China at an event on the Parliamentary estate. In a statement Sir Lindsay said, “I do not feel it is appropriate for the ambassador for China to meet on the Commons estate and in our place of work when his country has imposed sanctions against some of our members”.

Lord McFall said in his statement: “The Speakers of both houses are in agreement that this particular APPG China meeting should take place elsewhere considering the current sanctions against members, including two members of the Lords”.

Assessment of China in the Integrated Review

In the March 2021 Integrated Review, China was described as a “systemic competitor”.

The review said the UK will “do more to adapt to China’s growing impact on many aspects of our lives as it becomes a more powerful in the world”. The Government said it will invest in “China-facing capabilities” which will allow the UK to better understand China and its people, while also improving the UK’s ability to respond to the challenge it poses to “our security, prosperity and values – and those of our allies and partners”.

However, the review also emphasised the Government’s intention to continue pursuing a “positive trade and investment relationship” with China, while also ensuring that national security is protected. It also acknowledged that cooperation with China on transnational issues such as climate change is a necessity.

In the House of Commons debate on AUKUS, when asked what the Government is doing to increase its influence on China on issues like climate change, Mr Johnson responded that Alok Sharma, President for COP 26, “was in Beijing recently and had very productive conversations with his Chinese counterparts”.

Chinese reaction to AUKUS

For China, AUKUS “has seriously undermined regional peace and stability”.  China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, went on to say that the announcement has “intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts.” China accused the three countries of double standards over nuclear non-proliferation and of holding on to a “Cold War mentality.”

A spokesperson for China’s London Embassy urged the UK “to take concrete actions to uphold the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and avoid any action that would increase tension in the Asia Pacific region or compromise the peace and stability in the region.”

Further reading

Further analysis of AUKUS and the UK’s defence tilt to the Indo-Pacific is available in the following Commons Library Briefing Papers:

The AUKUS agreement (11 October 2021)

Integrated Review 2021: The Defence tilt to the Indo-Pacific (11 October 2021)

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