Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said that the UK is committed to “swift and robust action” against any threat from China, as he meets with US President Joe Biden and Australian PM Anthony Albanese in California as part of an AUKUS summit.
Sunak unveiled a new “refreshed” integrated review document during the US visit, in which China - under Communist Party rule - was described as an “epoch-defining and systemic challenge” to the lives of British citizens. The blueprint for the UK’s foreign and defence policy was first created by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021, but has now been refreshed in light of the war in Ukraine and other global events.
“Where it is consistent with these interests, we will engage constructively with the Chinese government, business and people and cooperate on shared priorities,” it read. “But wherever the Chinese Communist Party’s actions and stated intent threaten the UK’s interests, we will take swift and robust action to protect them.”
The AUKUS agreement between Australia, the UK and the US has caused tension between the nations and China over recent years. However, despite China’s reservations over the intentions of the alliance, work is underway in San Diego, California for Sunak, Biden and Albanese to finalise the details of the pact.
What is AUKUS?
AUKUS is the name given to the security pact between Australia, the UK and the US. This specific project focuses on the development and delivery of nuclear-powered military equipment to Australia.
The pact was announced in September 2021 by Biden and former leaders Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson. While the development of nuclear-powered submarines was the focus of the alliance, it also includes cooperation concerning cyber issues and information sharing and is perceived to have been introduced as China continued to grow as a superpower in the Indo-Pacific region.
The UK announced plans to increase defence spending ahead of Wednesday’s highly-anticipated budget. Defence spending will be injected with a £5 billion boost over the next two years, including an “aspiration” to match spending to 2.5% of the national income.
The new defence budget will also support the AUKUS project with £1.98 billion invested into defence nuclear enterprises. Sunak, Biden and Abanese met in California to discuss the project.
Sunak also warned in the foreword of the review document that while the UK would seek to work collectively with Beijing on issues such as climate change, the country would not shy away from pushing back against China. He said: “China poses an epoch-defining challenge to the type of international order we want to see, both in terms of security and values – and so our approach must evolve.”
“We will work with our partners to engage with Beijing on issues such as climate change. But where there are attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to coerce or create dependencies, we will work closely with others to push back against them.”
What is China’s view of the AUKUS pact?
When the alliance was announced in autumn 2021, China heavily criticised the move. The PRC (People’s Republic of China) said that the pact was reminiscent of “cold-war mentality”.
Zhao Jijian, the foreign affairs spokesperson for the PRC, said: "The nuclear submarine cooperation between the US, the UK, and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international non-proliferation efforts. The three countries should discard the Cold War zero-sum mentality and narrow geopolitical perspective"
This was contested by the UK, US and Australia. Johnson told the House of Commons that he believed the pact was not intended to be made in relation to the growth of China.
While the newly updated and refreshed review itself said that the UK would push against certain actions by the Chinese government which could be perceived as “threats”, it did not refer directly to the country or government as a threat itself. It comes amid increasing tensions between China and the West, with former PM Liz Truss said to have been preparing to re-label Beijing as an official “threat” to the UK before the end of her brief time in office.