Britain’s new foreign secretary claimed a new defence pact with the US and Australia would make the UK safer despite tensions with China and a growing diplomatic row with France.
Liz Truss, who was appointed last week in a reshuffle, said the agreement signalled the UK’s readiness to defend the country’s interests and challenge unfair practices in the Indo-Pacific region in a veiled reference to relations with China.
The agreement will see the UK and US co-operate on developing a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.
The deal infuriated France which had lined up its own $66 billion contract to sell conventional diesel-electric submarines to Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday that Australia had “deep and grave concerns” about the submarines it had ordered and has turned to the UK and US for nuclear-powered craft. The change of tack - which Mr Morrison has said will cost his government at least $1.7bn alone - would make it only the seventh nation with such a fleet.
Its foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has accused the three countries of duplicity, a major breach of trust and contempt. It has recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australian for discussions following the deal.
But Lis Truss wrote in a newspaper that the pact showed Britain’s readiness to “be hard-headed in defending our interests and challenging unfair practices and malign acts”.
“It also shows our commitment to security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”
She added: “Our new security pact will not just make us safer at home, it could also create hundreds of new and high-skilled jobs.”
In her article, she did not refer to France or China. UK relations with China are at a low ebb despite huge investments by Beijing.
The balancing act was highlighted in 2019 when then defence secretary Gavin Williamson was criticised for risking trade talks with China by announcing the sending of a new aircraft carrier to the Pacific region.
The two countries have fallen out over China’s role in crushing dissent in Hong Kong and the UK’s decision to bar its companies like Huawei from critical infrastructure because of security concerns.
Ms Truss said in her article that “freedoms need to be defended, so we are also building strong security ties around the world".
But China has strongly criticised the pact as “extremely irresponsible” and a threat regional security amid growing concerns over the sovereignty of Taiwan.
It asserts its right as an independent nation but has long been considered a renegade breakaway province by China since 1949.
The issue was raised by former prime minister Theresa May in parliament last week when she asked about the implications of any Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the pact was “not meant to be adversarial” but stressed the UK’s determination to defend international law.
The most stinging criticism of the deal has, however, come from allies France, which was only given a few hours notice of the deal after it was negotiated in secret by the three countries.
France’s Europe minister Clement Beaune witheringly described the UK as a junior partner in the deal that had become reliant on the US after Brexit.
“Our British friends explained to us they were leaving the EU to create Global Britain. We can see that this is a return into the American lap and a form of accepted vassalisation,” he said.
“The UK is clearly trying to find its feet, perhaps there was a lack of thought about the strategic future. Today they are hiding in the American fold. I hope that will not be their policy for the decades to come.”