Thursday 16th September 2021

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister (Boris Johnson)
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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about our friendship with Australia and the United States, and the security of the Indo-Pacific.

Yesterday I joined President Biden and Prime Minister Morrison to create a new trilateral defence partnership between our countries known as AUKUS. Australia has, for the first time, taken the momentous decision to acquire a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, and it has asked for our help in achieving this ambition. I am delighted to tell the House that we have agreed to this request and we shall place the UK’s expertise in this field, amassed over decades, at the assistance of our Australian friends. The first task of AUKUS will be an 18-month trilateral collaboration to determine the best way of delivering advanced nuclear submarines for Australia—emphasising, of course, that they will be powered by nuclear reactors, not armed with nuclear weapons, so the nuclear non-proliferation treaty places no prohibition on that work. The House will understand how Australia’s future possession of that capability will help safeguard the peace and security of the Indo-Pacific.

Nuclear submarines are the capital ships of our age, propelled by an effectively inexhaustible source of energy, allowing them to circumnavigate the world without surfacing, deriving oxygen and fresh water from the sea around them. While on patrol, they keep silent watch over vast expanses of ocean, protecting shipping, gathering intelligence, deterring adversaries, and guarding the trade routes on which our livelihoods depend.

To design, build, operate and then safely decommission a nuclear submarine ranks among the most complex and technically demanding enterprises yet devised. Only six nations possess nuclear-powered submarines, and to help another country join this tiny circle is a decision of the utmost gravity, requiring perhaps the closest relationship of trust that can exist between sovereign states. I hope that I speak for the House when I say that I have no hesitation about trusting Australia, a fellow maritime democracy, joined to us by blood and history, which stood by Britain through two world wars at immense sacrifice.

Today, the UK and Australia defend the same interests, promote the same values and face the same threats: we are as closely aligned in international policy as any two countries in the world. One of the great prizes of this enterprise is that Australia, the UK and the US will become inseparable partners in a project that will last for decades, creating opportunities for still greater defence and industrial co-operation.

The integrated review of foreign and defence policy described Britain’s renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific, a region that is fast becoming the geopolitical centre of the world, and ever more important for British trade and therefore British jobs and British livelihoods. If there were ever any question about what global Britain’s tilt towards the Indo-Pacific would mean in reality, or what capabilities we might offer, this partnership with Australia and the US provides the answer. It amounts to a new pillar of our strategy, demonstrating Britain’s generational commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific and showing exactly how we can help one of our oldest friends to preserve regional stability. It comes after the UK’s success in becoming a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and our application to join the trans-Pacific free trade area.

At the same time, this project will create hundreds of highly skilled jobs across the UK, including in Scotland, the north of England and the midlands, reinforcing our industrial base and our national scientific expertise, exemplified by the British companies participating in this week’s Defence and Security Equipment International event.

A nuclear submarine programme exists within a different realm of engineering from any other marine project, requiring a mastery of disciplines ranging from propulsion to acoustics. In these fields and many others, we will have a new opportunity to strengthen Britain’s position as a science and technology superpower, and by generating economies of scale, this project could reduce the cost of the next generation of nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy, helping us to renew our own capabilities.

While our partnership will begin with nuclear-powered submarines, now that we have created AUKUS, we expect to accelerate the development of other advanced defence systems, including in cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and undersea capabilities. This partnership will open a new chapter in Britain’s friendship with our closest allies, help to safeguard the security of the Indo-Pacific, create jobs at home and reinforce our country’s place at the leading edge of technology. I commend this statement to the House.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement. The recent events in Afghanistan show us how precarious international stability can be. New challenges can emerge and issues in faraway corners of the globe can quickly turn into threats at home, so Labour welcomes increased co-operation with our allies. Australia and America are two of our closest security partners. Sharing resources and intelligence with them and enhancing capabilities makes them safer, makes Britain safer, and makes the world safer.

The lesson of the past few weeks is that Britain must look after our most important relationships, or our influence and security quickly decline. Labour welcomes this announcement, but may I ask the Prime Minister to outline in a bit more detail what the agreement means in practice? The strategic review identified China as a “systemic competitor”. China’s assertiveness does pose risks to UK interests in a secure Pacific region, in stable trading environments and in democracy and human rights. We need to deal with those risks, defend our values and defend our interests, but the same review also rightly stated that the UK must maintain a commercial relationship with China, and we must work with them on the defining global issues of the day, such as climate change and pandemic preparedness. Without diplomatic strategy and skill, those goals will come into conflict. So what plan does the Prime Minister have to ensure that this new arrangement increases, rather than decreases our ability to influence China?

In order to protect our security and interests, we also need to look after our broader alliances. NATO remains our most important strategic alliance. It is also the most successful, having delivered peace and security in Europe for three quarters of a century. Whatever the merits of an Indo-Pacific tilt, maintaining security in Europe must remain our primary objective. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that the arrangement will not see resources redirected from Europe and the high north to the Pacific? Will he also guarantee that the arrangement will strengthen rather than weaken the NATO alliance, including our indispensable bilateral relationship with France? We are also in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangements with Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the US, which is vital to our security. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that this new trilateral arrangement will not weaken our intelligence capabilities by producing a two-tier Five Eyes operation?

Finally, the arrangement clearly brings potential economic opportunities for Britain. We need the well-paid, high-skilled jobs that the defence industry provides in every corner of Britain. The Prime Minister said that the project will create hundreds of skilled jobs. Will he give more detail on what he has done to ensure that Britain gets its fair share of any contracts that come out of the arrangements? What will he do to ensure that no region or nation in Britain misses out on any job opportunities that the arrangement may bring?

Boris Johnson Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for welcoming the statement and AUKUS. I will answer some of the detailed points that he made.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman began by asking whether AUKUS was in any sense adversarial to China and how we will manage the relationship with China. It is important for the House to understand that it is not intended to be adversarial towards any other power; it merely reflects how the close relationship that we have with the United States and Australia, the shared values that we have and the sheer level of trust between us enables us to go to the extraordinary extent of sharing nuclear technology in the way in which we propose. Obviously, we also have a shared interest in promoting democracy, human rights, freedom of navigation and freedom of trade around the world, which are values and perspectives that I hope the whole House will support.

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about NATO, the House should be in no doubt that the Government’s commitment to NATO is absolutely unshakeable and indeed has been strengthened by the massive commitments that we have made. With the biggest uplift in defence spending since the cold war—£24 billion—2.2% of our GDP now goes on defence spending. He rightly raises the question of our military relationship with France, which, again, is rock-solid. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the French, whether in the Sahel, where we are running a joint operation against terrorists in Mali, or in Estonia, where we have the largest NATO operation.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked reasonably about the jobs that this great project will unquestionably produce. What I can say is that there will be an 18-month scoping exercise to establish where the work should go between the three partners, but clearly there are deep pools of expertise throughout the United Kingdom, whether in Derby, Plymouth, Scotland or Barrow. I have no doubt whatever that it will bring hundreds of high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the kind that we want to see, and increasingly are seeing, in our country.

Finally, it is a pleasure to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s change of heart about NATO—I had to say this, Mr Speaker, pain me though it does—after he only recently campaigned to install a Prime Minister who wanted us to withdraw from NATO.