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Submarine deal gives post-Brexit Britain its moment on the world stage

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LONDON As relations between France and the United States fall to their lowest level in decades, Britain has become the unlikely winner of a maritime security alliance that has sown anger and recriminations on three continents .

The British government played an early role in negotiating a three-way alliance with the United States and Australia to deploy nuclear-powered submarines in the Pacific, according to officials in London and Washington. The landmark deal prompted Australia to pull out of a $ 66 billion diesel-electric submarine deal with France, sparking fury in Paris and quiet satisfaction in London.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will meet President Biden at the White House next week and speak at the United Nations, this is his first tangible victory in a campaign to make Britain post-Brexit a player on the world stage.

Since leaving the European Union 18 months ago, Britain has been looking for a place in the world. Brexiteers have clung to the phrase Global Britain, which has always seemed more of a marketing slogan than a cohesive foreign policy.

Yet the deal reached on Wednesday, in which the United States and Britain would supply the submarines to Australia, confirmed Britain’s status as a military power with nuclear expertise, as well as a trusted ally of the United States. It also lent credibility to Mr Johnson’s efforts to establish a British presence in Asia, a strategy that at first looked like a nostalgic throwback to his imperial past.

Today Britain negotiated trade deals with Australia, Japan and South Korea, and deployed an aircraft carrier to help the United States keep tabs on China in the Sea of Southern China, where Beijing is asserting its own imperial ambitions by building a chain of facilities.

It is for the first time starting to flesh out global Britain, said Kim Darroch, former British ambassador to Washington. Beginning to establish a real presence, in the fields of defense and economy, in this part of the world.

Mr Darroch warned that the economic dividends of the deal, how many jobs and how much money would flow to British factories, had yet to be worked out with the United States. Joining a distant security alliance also imposes costs and expectations on Britain, which is downsizing its military and, like many countries, has seen its public finances ravaged by the pandemic.

Yet for a country that was treated as little more than an afterthought by President Biden during the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, this was a welcome return to relevance. British officials have cited the deal as proof of their ability to move deftly in a post-Brexit world in this case, at the expense of a European neighbor.

Australia first approached Britain to offer that the British and Americans help it deploy nuclear-powered submarines, according to British officials. The Australians concluded that the diesel models supplied in the French deal were not going to be adequate for a future in which China posed an ever greater threat.

Britain’s ties to the United States on nuclear technology date back to a 1958 defense agreement, so the concept of the two allies working together was not only natural but inevitable. The United States will provide the highly enriched uranium that powers the submarine reactors.

Britain and Australia, officials said, made an aggressive Washington sales pitch that included an exchange between Mr Johnson and Mr Biden in June at the Group of 7 meeting in Cornwall, England . Britain, they said, had to push back on American officials who wondered why Australia couldn’t just buy submarines directly from the United States.

Among the British arguments: Its military protocols are more closely aligned with those of the Australian military, making it easier for Australians to operate ships also equipped with British technology. A Biden administration official said the White House never considered removing Britain from the alliance.

Much of it was a technical decision, said Bates Gill, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, based in Sydney, Australia. But it could also have been partly a reliability decision.

For Mr Johnson, who has made the privileged relationship with the United States the cornerstone of his foreign policy, the submarine deal was compensation for having his views on Afghanistan dismissed by Mr Biden .

Mr Johnson, officials said, wanted the withdrawal to be conditional on conditions on the ground. Regardless of the ruffled feathers, the PM has made it clear that Britain will back Mr Biden on his No.1 priority: competition with China.

They make choices, and choices have consequences, said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, who praised the British approach.

For some in Britain, those consequences might not be worth the benefits. Theresa May, Mr Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, has warned Britain could be drawn into a war with China over Taiwan.

In 2016, Mr Johnson argued that leaving the European Union would allow Britain to engage more independently with China. This was before Beijing cracked down on Hong Kong, a former British colony. Now China’s policy in Britain does not seem much different from that of the United States.

Mr Johnson hopes to build on Britain’s profile by hosting a successful UN climate change conference in Glasgow in November. But it’s unclear how much help he’ll get from Mr Biden. Britain is urging the United States to double its contribution to an annual $ 100 billion fund to help countries mitigate the effects of climate change. He hasn’t done it yet.

Britain, analysts say, could benefit from a new foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who won praise in her last post for negotiating trade deals in Asia. Mr Johnson demoted his predecessor, Dominic Raab, after coming under heavy criticism for staying on vacation last month in Crete when the Taliban invaded Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Liz Truss has his detractors, said Peter Westmacott, former British ambassador to Washington. But he said she was as well placed as anyone to try and add substance to Global Britain’s slogan.

Despite all the satisfaction in London, Britain still faces daunting geopolitical realities. The agreement on submarines risks worsening its relations with France, already strained by post-Brexit disputes over fishing rights and migrants crossing the Channel.

The French governments’ contempt for Britain was evident in his response to the news of the alliance: he recalled his ambassadors to the US and Australia but left his envoy to Britain a gesture, according to media reports. French, intended to convey that he considered Great Britain to be somewhat of an actor in the geopolitical drama. Other analysts said France was particularly upset because it believed the United States was rewarding Britain when it should be punished for leaving the European Union.

Yet Mr Johnson shouldn’t count on smooth sailing with Washington either. Britain could still find itself at odds with Northern Ireland, where the PM is pushing for changes to post-Brexit trade deals.

Visiting London President Nancy Pelosi on Friday reiterated a warning that if Britain jeopardized the peace in Northern Ireland, Congress would not approve a trade deal between Britain and the States -United.

Beyond that, analysts say, Britain’s flippant treatment of Afghanistan by Mr Bidens, coupled with the short notice the White House gave France before announcing the security alliance, showed that the United States would pursue its interests regardless of transatlantic sensitivities. relationships.

Most notable is how much Americans talk about it and how British are, said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and Americas program at Chatham House, a UK research institution. This basic fact captures a lot about the special relationship. Special does not mean equal.

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