Britain has denied it is seeking a new “cold war” with China following the announcement of a defence pact with the US and Australia to check Beijing’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific.
The three allies said they would be working together to enable the Australian navy to acquire for the first time a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.
The move drew an angry response from Beijing, with the Chinese embassy in Washington warning countries against building “exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties”.
Embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said: “In particular, they should shake off their cold war mentality and ideological prejudice.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace insisted the Chinese were “wrong” to see the trilateral agreement – dubbed Aukus – as an act of aggression.
“In the Cold War everyone was stuck behind fences and didn’t really communicate with each other and certainly didn’t engage in global trade, and I think it’s probably a Cold War view to describe it as a cold war,” he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.
At the same time, he acknowledged that China’s military expansion – and its involvement in a series of disputes with neighbouring nations over navigation rights in the South China Sea – inevitably led to a “reaction” elsewhere.
“China has launched on a huge investment in its military and its surface fleet and aircraft. It is probably one of the largest armed forces on the planet,” Mr Wallace said.
“China is obviously engaged in a number of disputes around freedom of navigation. That just causes a reaction elsewhere.
“But it is not just about China. It is about the modern capabilities a country such as Australia needs.”
The pact was announced in a joint statement on Wednesday by Boris Johnson, US president Joe Biden and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.
Mr Johnson said they would work “hand-in-glove to preserve security and stability in the Indo-Pacific”.
At the same time he said Scotland and parts of the north of England and the Midlands would benefit from work on the Australian submarine fleet.
The move to nuclear-powered – although not nuclear-armed – vessels will give the Australian navy the ability to operate undetected for longer periods underwater.
However, it is a blow to France which had a contract with Canberra to supply a new fleet of conventional diesel-electric submarines which has now been scrapped.
In a joint statement, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and armed forces minister Florence Parly condemned the move as contrary to “the letter and spirit of the co-operation” between France and Australia.
They added: “The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.”
Mr Wallace acknowledged French “frustration” over the agreement but insisted that Britain had not sought to to disrupt Paris’s relationship with Australia.
“We didn’t go fishing for these opportunities, fundamentally the Australians made a decision they wanted a different capability,” he told Sky News.
“We have no intention of doing anything to antagonise the French – the French are some of our closest military allies in Europe.”
The initial scoping phase for the submarines is expected to take 18 months, with UK officials predicting the programme will “create hundreds of highly skilled scientific and engineering roles” across the country, as well as driving investment in high-tech sectors.
At a press conference in Canberra, Mr Morrison said it was undecided if Australia would purchase British-built BAE Systems Astute class submarines or the Virginia class vessels constructed in the US.
Mr Johnson will make a statement on the pact – which also covers artificial intelligence, cyber and quantum technologies – in the Commons on Thursday
It comes after the Government’s integrated review of security and foreign policy earlier this year outlined plans for a “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific.
The Royal Navy carrier strike group – led by HMS Queen Elizabeth with US support – is currently being deployed in the region as a sign of the new priority it is being given.