Boris backs Biden in big political call, angering Beijing

Sep 21, 2021

Andrew Hammond
The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

DOZENS of world leaders are gathering in New York City this week for the annual UN meetings. Yet, the eyes of many will be a little under 402km south in Washington as Joe Biden separately hosts UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and then the leaders of the 'Quad' powers of India, Japan and Australia.

While some have dismissed the importance of the Quad - the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue - its relevance as an emerging anti-China alliance was underlined by the announcement last week by London, Washington and Canberra of a landmark, enhanced trilateral security partnership to defend 'shared interests in the Indo-Pacific', with Beijing the unmentioned key focal point. The Aukus partnership could be hugely important with UK national security adviser Stephen Lovegrove saying 'it is perhaps the most significant capability collaboration anywhere in the world in the past six decades'.

Indeed, while massive UK media attention has focused on Mr Johnson's ministerial reshuffle last week, the most important decision he made wasn't about his new cabinet, but the new intelligence and defence agreement, and he visits the White House this week just before President Biden hosts Prime Ministers Scott Morrison, Narendra Modi and Yoshihide Suga for the first in-person leadership meeting of the Quad powers. One sign of the fact that Aukus is a big political call for Mr Johnson is the criticism he got last week, including from former prime minister Theresa May who asked whether the pact meant London could be enveloped in a war with China over Taiwan.

While the UK, US and Australia are separated geographically, they have deep historical ties, and are key members of the so-called 'Five Eyes' intelligence alliance with Canada and New Zealand. The new deal will bring new relevance to this longstanding partnership, including collaboration on a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian Navy, with Washington and London sharing advanced technologies, including nuclear-powered submarine knowhow, cyber capabilities, and artificial intelligence.

The new agreement will have ramifications not just for the existing Quad, but other countries too. Take the example of France, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) ally of the US and UK, which is furious as it had signed a now-dead deal to build a fleet of diesel electric submarines for the Australian Navy.


However, it is China for which the deal has the most implications. While the UK, US and Australian officials insist that the new defence agreement is not a response to any one country, all three share concerns about Beijing's military buildup in the Indo-Pacific.

What the deal also underlines is how much the US wants greater intra-Western cooperation to be central to countering China in the decades to come. This is shown also in recent developments within Five Eyes too which recently came under new stress over Chinese participation in international 5G telecommunications networks.

The origins of Five Eyes stem from the remarkable intelligence relationship that the US and UK enjoyed in World War II which was institutionalised in the 1946 Brusa (later Ukusa) Agreement. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as former UK dominions, began representing themselves in the intelligence pact in the late 1940s and 1950s which led to developments like the 1951 Anzus treaty.

To be sure, the US has other intelligence relationships with key allies. Yet, the closest cooperation is among the Five Eyes countries bonded by decades of strong security, economic, political and cultural ties, with their geographical spread across the globe meaning that members neatly divide intelligence-gathering responsibilities by region. The UK, for example, leads on the Middle East, and Europe too.

Yet, in recent years, the mutual trust that is the foundation of these exchanges has been challenged by several developments, including the Edward Snowden leaks during the Obama administration. Most recently, there have been potential divergences over the use of Chinese 5G telecommunications technology.

The US and Australia have been the most vociferous in their opposition to such Chinese technology with both banning the Chinese-headquartered telecoms firms from supplying equipment to their 5G networks. However, the Five Eyes powers have not been 100 per cent unified on this 5G issue, with New Zealand, Canada, and the UK having more nuanced positions.

Take the example of London where, despite security and defence having long been at the core of the special relationship with Washington, tensions surfaced between the Trump team and the former government of Theresa May and indeed Mr Johnson on this issue with London considering allowing Chinese firms a limited role in building "non-core" parts of the nation's 5G network.

However, Mr Johnson ultimately u-turned last year on this issue under pressure from then president Trump.


Part of the reason for the sensitivity of this issue is that for London to allow even restricted use of Chinese 5G could have created gaps in the intelligence and research shared among the Five Eyes members given the stance of Washington and Canberra on the issue. This might potentially have led other members of the alliance to exclude or severely limit its use too.

Had there been a breach between the UK and US and Australia on this issue, intelligence sharing could have been curtailed, creating possible gaps in collection, analysis and dissemination, given the UK's focus on Europe and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, London could have lost access to information collected by other Five Eyes powers in other areas of the globe, including South America and the Asia-Pacific.

So Mr Johnson's decision last year was taken amid a high stakes diplomatic balancing act for London given its desire to form closer post-Brexit economic ties with China.

The last three Conservative governments have increasingly perceived that enhancing relations with Beijing is in the UK national interest, after bilateral relations went into a deep freeze in 2012 when then-prime minister David Cameron offended Beijing by meeting the Dalai Lama.

These UK governments have figured that President Xi Jinping could be in power into the 2030s, and they and fellow ministers see an opportunity to develop a relationship that could make a significant contribution to UK prosperity for a generation to come.

Yet, Mr Johnson has also placed a super-priority too on building stronger ties with the US, including a new bilateral trade deal, and last week's security agreement may indicate that he has finally decided to throw his lot in with Washington, despite the costs this may bring with the relationship with Beijing.