Making waves in the Pacific: how Boris Johnson’s Global Britain went rogue

Defence pact with Australia and the US increases chance of confrontation with China and spurs nuclear proliferation

Life got a little more dangerous last week. It wasn’t due to the pandemic or the climate crisis. It was entirely the result of the conscious choices of men (and it’s nearly always men) gearing up for war.

That’s denied, naturally. Myopic politicians, soldiers and diplomats say new nuclear weapons, missiles, ships, submarines and alliances are necessary to deter unnamed enemies. They are needed to bolster “international security”.

So why is it that, each day, the world feels a little less secure? This paradox is lost on two such political pygmies, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Australia’s Scott Morrison. These two could be twins. Both suffer illusions about their own importance. They think they are global players. In truth, they’re global goofs.

In America’s losing battle to prevent China’s rise to world No 1, they dance to Joe Biden’s menacing tune. They’re like a pair of flabby chorus singers supporting the main turn. On this, both agree: if there’s going to be another war, they want in.

Australia’s decision last week to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines as part of the new Aukus defence pact with the US and UK places it squarely in Beijing’s gunsights. It weakens, not enhances, its security.

It makes Canberra dependent on Washington’s good graces. It has outraged France and other European friends. And the campaign for a nuclear-free Pacific, backed by New Zealand and regional allies, has been holed below the waterline.

As part of the military alliance with the UK and US, Australia will build nuclear-powered submarines to replace conventional Collins-class subs such as HMAS Rankin
As part of the military alliance with the UK and US, Australia will build nuclear-powered submarines to replace conventional Collins-class subs such as HMAS Rankin. Photograph: Australian Defence Force/Getty Images

The pact also speaks volumes about western hypocrisy over nuclear proliferation. Courtesy of the US, Australia will acquire sophisticated technology, off-the-shelf reactors fuelled by enriched uranium, and the latest know-how.

This transfer breaks international rules and shatters anti-nuclear taboos. It plainly opens the door to an Australian nuclear weapons capability. Beijing will surely find painful ways to hit back over what President Xi Jinping calls interference in the “internal affairs of this region”.

Shattered, too, is western solidarity in the Indo-Pacific in countering Chinese aggression. The EU published a new regional strategy last week. It favours “multifaceted engagement”, not an American-led arms race. What would the US do – what would Israel – if Iran, bypassing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, suddenly decided to nuclearise its military capabilities? They’d go nuts. Shouting would likely be followed by shooting.

Johnson is best at shooting himself in the foot. Britain’s credibility on non-proliferation was already in shreds. It is expanding its nuclear warhead stockpile by 40%. The government no longer rules out nuclear first-use. Thanks to Johnson’s divisive bumbling, the UK may soon lack a home for its Scotland-based nuclear subs. Watch out. He may move them to Adelaide.

Johnson believes his Australia wheeze fortifies his “global Britain” fantasy, underwriting his trade-enhancing tilt to the Indo-Pacific. In truth, his policy increases UK vulnerabilities in a region where it has scant influence and less control, for little tangible gain.

As former prime minister Theresa May suggests, the UK may be sucked into a China-Taiwan or China-Japan conflict for which it is hopelessly ill-equipped, militarily and economically.

When he meets Biden in Washington this week, Johnson will portray Britain as a key partner sharing global security responsibilities. Who’s he fooling? His is the embarrassing behaviour of a slightly tipsy elderly relative at a posh party.

Fear of China drives American policy. Another White House meeting this week carries greater significance – that of the Quad (the US, India, Japan and Australia). This refurbished alliance is a key building block in Biden’s anti-Beijing barricade.

But it is also an escalation. Fear of the US, coupled with the belief it can be overtaken, drives China, too. Its rapid military build-up is one response. Each year, it launches more combat ships than the Royal Navy possesses in total.

Xi also claims to be upholding global security. How to square that with China’s recently uncovered construction of hundreds of additional nuclear missile silos?

There are plenty of hypocrites in Beijing, too. Chinese diplomats are currently pushing to revive denuclearisation talks with Kim Jong-un. You don’t have to be a North Korean dictator to wonder at such blatant double standards.

Insecure Kim is endlessly berated and punished for developing nuclear weapons. He fired off his latest cruise and ballistic missiles last week in clumsy protest. Aukus may make him even more paranoid.

Iran, in contrast, does not possess nuclear weapons and insists it does not want them. International talks to ensure it keeps its word are on life support amid barely veiled Israeli threats of military action. What will Tehran’s newly installed hardline leadership, surrounded by enemies, make of this latest evidence of the west’s contempt for the non-proliferation principles it supposedly cherishes? It certainly won’t help.

The US and the world’s other great nuclear power, Russia, continue to set a seriously bad example. Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed in June to relaunch a “strategic security dialogue”. In reality, both countries are feverishly upgrading and expanding already vast nuclear arsenals.

This revived competition encompasses new battle zones such as cyberspace, outer space and the Arctic. Lapsed arms control treaties remain lapsed. Hypersonic missiles are the latest must-have accessory for today’s Strangeloves.

In former times, fear of atomic Armageddon was enough to keep the peace. Only a lunatic would chance it, the old cold warriors said. General Mark Milley, the top US commander, feared that Donald Trump, after his election defeat, was crazy enough to do it – which sort of proves the point.

Yet as the new cold war’s battle lines come into sharper focus and the odds shorten on another global conflagration, a growing number of foolish men in positions of power seem mad enough to risk it.

The danger they pose grows by the day.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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