AUKUS – Confronting China or fracturing the Western alliance?

At 10pm on 15th September, a noticeably tired looking Boris Johnson virtually joined Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Joe Biden to announce a new defence pact that would be, rather unimaginatively, called AUKUS. The tripartite pact would initially focus on the development of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia but would also include closer cooperation in sensitive fields such as Artificial Intelligence and quantum technology. The landmark deal is notable as the USA has had a strict policy on not sharing nuclear submarine technology with other nations, except with Britain in a relationship that dates back to 1958. Yet, the move comes as increasing focus builds on the Info-Pacific region and the increasing focus on an authoritarian China.

Countering China

It is often forgotten that this year marks the two-decade anniversary of China joining the World Trade Organisation. The move, heralded at the time as a decisive win for market liberalism, was seen by Western observers as a means of bringing China slowly into the fold. Some even speculated that democracy and increased human rights would be inevitable by-products as trade increased. The reality has been anything but. China, in particular under President Xi Jinping, has grown increasingly confident in demonstrating and exercising its military prowess within the South China Sea whilst domestically, it has shown no signs of letting up on the human rights violation against the Uyghurs. A tilt that initially began under President Obama and accelerated under President Trump, the United States has become a far-more active player in the Indo-Pacific region, looking to work with a broad range of partners such as Japan, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia to counter China’s growing hegemony in the region. 

For Australia, tensions with China have accelerated in recent months, from disputes over trade to diplomatic spats over the origins of Covid-19.[1] Back in 2016, Canberra struck one of the largest military deals at the time, a lucrative £48 billion deal with the French Naval Group to construct 12 diesel-electric powered submarines. Yet, a combination of constant delays and a desire to increase the sophistication of these submarines has seen Canberra rip-up the lucrative deal, much to the consternation of Paris, and instead set-up a new working group with the USA and UK. For the UK, the move can be seen as its first genuine action in the Indo-Pacific after laying out plans in March 2021 to become a more active player in the region.[2]

Who needs enemies with friends like these?

The mood in Paris has been apocalyptic. It sees the AUSKUS pact as a twin-slight; firstly, the public loss of a lucrative military contract without much notice – whilst Canberra had warned over the possible cancellation of the contract, it had not revealed the negotiations with London and Washington D.C. over the last six months. Secondly, despite having been a more active player in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years when compared to London, it has been locked out of this new security and defensive relationship at a time when France prepares to hold the Presidency of the EU Council and gears up in April 2022 for French Presidential elections. 

French officials have aimed their frustration primarily at Australia and the United States so far. It cancelled events in both nations, including an anniversary of the joint US-French victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake in the American Revolution against the British Empire[3] (who says irony is dead). More significantly, it recalled its ambassadors in both Canberra and Washington D.C., the first time it has done so with either ally and a remarkable action against nations it has historically considered friends. Former British Ambassador to Paris Lord Ricketts has compared the breakdown in relations to the ‘rupture’ of the 2003 Iraq War.[4] After several days, Presidents Biden and Macron held a phone call that sought to repair relations, although showed no indication that France could join the new club. Britain, so far, has largely avoided France’s anger, seen more as an accomplice than a ringleader.[5] There may also be a simple reality that Britain and France enjoy strong military cooperation, including in the nuclear field since the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, and there have been suggestions Paris is trying to get London to sign up to a new pact post-Brexit.[6]

Yet, whilst the most visible anger has been seen in Paris, it isn’t the only areas of the western alliance showing misgivings over AUKUS. New Zealand immediately declared that no Australian nuclear-powered submarines would be allowed in its waters, in line with a long-held non-nuclear policy the Kiwi nation has. The European Union has been left embarrassed as the announcement came the day before its new Indo-Pacific strategy which sought to engage the bloc more closely in the region. In some ways, the mildest reaction has been Beijing, which has accused the three nations of a ‘Cold War mentality’[7] and threatening to impact trade relations but has yet to take any meaningful action.

The Integrated Review for the Integrated Win

The AUKUS announcement marked something which Britain has not arguably achieved since 2016 and certainly not under Johnson’s Premiership until now – a rare ‘win-win’ victory on the global stage. This year was a unique opportunity for Johnson as Britain hosted both the G7 presidency and the critical climate change conference in COP26 in November. Yet, until now, these events had been overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Western retreat from Afghanistan and post-Brexit tensions with the EU. The AUKUS pact, coming less than three weeks after the withdrawal from Kabul, offers three major points for Johnson:

Firstly, it dampens down concerns that his personal relationship with Biden could impact the ‘Special Relationship’. It has been well documented that the President and Prime Minister have struggled at times to see eye-to-eye for a number of years, dating back to the Obama presidency. Biden has been particularly critical of Brexit and the impact it could have on the Ireland peace process. Johnson, in turn, has struggled until now to gain concessions from Biden, be they the Brexit holy grail of a UK-US trade deal or more recently, prolonging of the Western presence in Kabul to allow for further evacuations. Yet, the AUKUS pact shows that Washington D.C. still sees Britain as a critical ally in security and defence policy. One US official has even labelled the AUKUS pact as a ‘downpayment on Global Britain’ and the Indo-Pacific tilt.[8] It also shows the reinvigoration of Canberra-London relations that have taken place under Johnson – this year, both nations have struck a trade agreement, agreed to swap Pfizer vaccines and have now established a key new working group.

Secondly, it is notable that this pact comes six months after the UK Government’s publication of the Integrated Review into security, defence, development and foreign policy.[9] Seen as the clearest indication yet of what Johnson’s world view is, it seeks to combine policy areas to achieve Britain’s strategic interest. The decision to merge the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office is illustrative of this viewpoint. It is also telling that on the day when Johnson reshuffled his cabinet to focus on ‘levelling up’ and ‘Building Back Better, he used the AUKUS announcement to focus on the highly-skilled jobs and fields that would benefit from the pact.[10] It shows that Johnson is not afraid of using foreign policy to achieve domestic aims, a move that brings him more in line with Biden (and indeed, former President Trump) than many may appreciate.

Third and finally, the AUKUS deal is an early-sign of the so-called ‘nimbleness’ that Britain now feels it can act with on the global stage.[11] In the past, when attempting to gain agreement on an issue within the EU, it required the unanimity of all member states; not an easy feat given the increasing divergence between the likes of Viktor Orban and Angela Merkel. Britain can now sign-up to and even lead pacts with a wide range of coalition partners. The Integrated Review set out a world vision that this would become more common, and it is telling that Germany, France and Italy have all spoken over the hope of striking security and defence agreements with Britain post-Brexit.[12] The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was in London in September, where he is believed to have sounded out Johnson on his interest on a Britain-EU security and defensive pact, something which was rejected by London during the Brexit talks but may have an appeal post-Kabul.[13]

The key issue for Britain now is that the AUKUS deal welds it even closer to Washington D.C. Former Prime Minister Theresa May raised a timely question the day after the pact was announced, asking whether the new AUKUS may force Britain to war with China were it to invade Taiwan.[14] Johnson was unable to rule out the possibility and it is this reliance on the special relationship post-Brexit which may turn into hubris. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating lambasted the AUKUS pact, calling it a ‘loss of sovereignty’ and ‘tying Australia into any military engagement against China’.[15]Ultimately though, for Johnson, he will no doubt welcome and savour his new defensive pact as the reward of a very busy September, during which time he has reset his premiership, his cabinet and his policy priorities. Whether AUKUS ultimately achieves his foreign policy aims objectives remains to be seen, but at half-time[16], it is 1-0 to Johnson.

[1]Reuters, 9thJune 2021,

[2]Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, 16thMarch 2021,

[3]Politico, 16thSeptember 2021,

[4]Lord Ricketts Twitter, 17thSeptember 2021,


[6]The Guardian, 31stMay 2021,

[7]The Guardian, 16thSeptember 2021,

[8]The Guardian, 15thSeptember,

[9]Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, 16thMarch 2021,

[10]PM Statement on AUKUS Partnership, 15thSeptember,

[11]The Atlantic, 16thSeptember,

[12]The Guardian, 31stMay 2021,

[13]The Times, 17thSeptember 2021,

[14]The Guardian, 16thSeptember,

[15]The Sydney Morning Herald, 16thSeptember,

[16]The Global Herald, 17thSeptember,