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16 September 2021

Boris Johnson’s biggest decision this week wasn’t about the reshuffle at all

The new Aukus defence agreement with the US and Australia signals an escalation in the cold war against China.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has completed the first stage of his cabinet reshuffle, demoting or removing the underperforming, while changes at junior ministerial level are under way. More of that tomorrow, but the most important announcement he has made in the last 24 hours isn’t any of the new faces around the cabinet table but the intelligence and material-sharing agreement he has struck with the US and Australia: Aukus.

Under the terms of the agreement, the US and UK will provide technical and logistical support for Australia’s submarine programme, which will have the potential to be nuclear-armed, though that remains, for the moment, only a possibility. All three nations will share intelligence and security information.

The deal has caused a war of words between France and the countries of Aukus, with the French government in a rage about Australia’s abandonment of their contract to buy material from them. But the most important part of the deal is how it firmly aligns the UK with China’s most steadfast opponents in the latter’s immediate neighbourhood.

Aukus’s policy logic is that a more robust response to China’s regional activities means it will cease and desist, representing the further escalation of a new cold war between China, the US, Australia, the UK and, in time, others; but that it won’t, ultimately, lead to a hot war. That may be right, it may not. Either way, it’s the biggest and most consequential political decision Johnson made this week.

[See also: Why reviving the Iran nuclear deal is crucial for Joe Biden’s presidency]

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