2021-09-19 01:05:42 Submarine Deal Gives Post-Brexit Britain Its Moment on the Global Stage
Submarine Deal Gives Post-Brexit Britain Its Moment on the Global Stage
LONDON: As France and the United States’ relations deteriorate to their lowest point in decades, Britain emerges as the unlikely victor in a maritime security alliance that has sowed resentment and recrimination across three continents.
According to officials in London and Washington, the British government played an early role in brokering the three-way alliance with the United States and Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific. The historic agreement prompted Australia to withdraw from a $66 billion deal with France for diesel-electric submarines, causing outrage in Paris and quiet satisfaction in London.
It is the first tangible victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will meet with President Biden at the White House this week and speak at the United Nations, in his campaign to make post-Brexit Britain a player on the global stage.
Britain has been looking for a place in the world since leaving the European Union 18 months ago. Brexit supporters seized on the phrase “Global Britain,” which seemed more like a marketing slogan than a coherent foreign policy.
Nonetheless, the agreement reached on Wednesday, in which the US and Britain would supply Australia with submarines, confirmed Britain’s status as a military power with nuclear expertise, as well as a trusted ally of the US. It also lent credibility to Mr. Johnson’s efforts to establish a British presence in Asia, a strategy that initially appeared to be a nostalgic nod to the country’s imperial past.
Britain has now negotiated trade deals with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, as well as deployed an aircraft carrier to assist the US in keeping an eye on China in the South China Sea, where Beijing is asserting its own imperial ambitions by erecting a chain of military installations.
“It does, for the first time, begin to flesh out Global Britain,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States. “We are beginning to establish a real presence in that part of the world, both in the defense and economic spheres.”
Mr. Darroch cautioned that the deal’s economic dividends — how many jobs and how much money would flow to British factories — had yet to be worked out with the US. Joining a far-flung security alliance imposes costs and expectations on Britain, which is shrinking its military and, like many other countries, has seen its public finances devastated by the pandemic.
Still, it was a welcome return to relevance for a country that had been treated as little more than an afterthought by President Biden in his recent withdrawal from Afghanistan. The deal was cited by British officials as evidence of their ability to maneuver deftly in a post-Brexit world — in this case, at the expense of a European neighbor.
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According to British officials, Australia first approached Britain with the proposal that the British and Americans assist it in the deployment of nuclear-powered submarines. The Australians concluded that the diesel models provided in the French deal would be insufficient for a future in which China posed a growing threat.
Britain’s links with the US on nuclear technology date back to a 1958 defense treaty, so the idea of the two allies cooperating was not only natural, but unavoidable. The US will supply the highly enriched uranium that will power the submarines’ reactors.
Officials said Britain and Australia made an aggressive sales pitch to Washington, which included a meeting between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Biden in June at the Group of 7 meeting in Cornwall, England. They claimed that Britain had to defend itself against American officials who questioned why Australia couldn’t simply buy submarines from the US.
Among Britain’s arguments is that its military protocols are more closely aligned with those of the Australian military, making it easier for the Australians to operate vessels outfitted with British technology. According to a Biden administration official, the White House never considered pulling Britain out of the alliance.
“It was mostly a technical decision,” explained Bates Gill, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Sydney, Australia. “However, it could also have been a decision based on trustworthiness.”
Mr. Johnson, who has made the “special relationship” with the United States the cornerstone of his foreign policy, saw the submarine deal as retaliation for Mr. Biden dismissing his views on Afghanistan.
Officials said Mr. Johnson wanted the withdrawal to be contingent on ground conditions. Regardless of the ruffled feathers, the prime minister has stated unequivocally that Britain will support Mr. Biden on his top priority: competition with China.
“They’re making choices, and those choices have consequences,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, who praised the British approach.
Some in the United Kingdom may believe that the costs outweigh the benefits. Mr. Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, warned that Britain could be drawn into a war with China over Taiwan.
Mr. Johnson argued in 2016 that leaving the European Union would allow Britain to engage with China more independently. That was before Beijing imposed strict measures on Hong Kong, a former British colony. Now, Britain’s China policy appears to be nearly identical to that of the United States.
Mr. Johnson hopes to raise Britain’s profile by hosting a successful United Nations climate-change conference in Glasgow in November. However, it is unclear how much assistance he will receive from Mr. Biden. Britain is pressuring the US to double its contribution to a $100 billion annual fund to assist countries in mitigating the effects of climate change. It has not yet done so.
Analysts believe that Britain will benefit from having a new foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who was praised in her previous job for negotiating trade deals in Asia. Mr. Johnson demoted her predecessor, Dominic Raab, after he was chastised for being on vacation in Crete when the Taliban swept into Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, last month.
“Liz Truss has detractors,” said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States. He did say, however, that she was “as well placed as anyone to try to add substance to the slogan of Global Britain.”
Despite the joy in London, Britain still faces daunting geopolitical realities. The submarine deal is likely to aggravate its already strained relationship with France, which has been strained by post-Brexit disagreements over fishing rights and migrants crossing the English Channel.
The French government’s contempt for Britain was evident in its reaction to the news of the alliance: it recalled its ambassadors to the United States and Australia but retained its envoy to Britain — a gesture, according to French media, meant to convey that it regarded Britain as a bit player in the geopolitical drama. Other analysts said France was particularly irritated because it believed the US was rewarding Britain while punishing it for leaving the European Union.
Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, should not expect smooth sailing with Washington. Britain may still be at odds over Northern Ireland, where the prime minister is pushing for changes in post-Brexit trade arrangements.
On a visit to London on Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated her warning that if Britain jeopardized the peace in Northern Ireland, Congress would not approve a trade agreement between Britain and the United States.
Beyond that, analysts said, Mr. Biden’s casual treatment of Britain on Afghanistan, combined with the short notice the White House gave France before announcing the security alliance, demonstrated that the US would pursue its interests regardless of trans-Atlantic sensitivities.
“The most remarkable thing is how little Americans are talking about this and how much the Brits are,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the United States and the Americas program at Chatham House, a British think tank. “That simple fact encapsulates a great deal about the special relationship. “Special does not imply equal.”