Britain told to double attack submarine fleet to challenge China

Rishi Sunak with (left to right) Col Jaimie Norman, Admiral Sir Ben Key, and Commander Gus Carnie during his visit to San Diego for Aukus talks - PA
Rishi Sunak with (left to right) Col Jaimie Norman, Admiral Sir Ben Key, and Commander Gus Carnie during his visit to San Diego for Aukus talks - PA

Britain will need to double the size of its attack submarine fleet to challenge China, it has been warned.

Currently, the UK is building seven Astute-class hunter-killer vessels, which cost £1.3 billion each.

However, in the face of an increasingly aggressive China, defence insiders have said these need to be replaced with up to 19 British-designed next generation submarines, known as the Submersible Ship Nuclear (Replacement) - a modified version of the boats being supplied to Australia under the Aukus agreement.

Rishi Sunak has been in the US to take part in a three-way summit with Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese, the Australian premier, to sign off on the historic Aukus pact to develop conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.

Rishi Sunak and Anthony Albanese - Getty
Rishi Sunak and Anthony Albanese - Getty

Speaking on Monday, the Prime Minister insisted Britain was committed to "swift and robust action" to counter any threat to UK national interests from China, as he set out his "refreshed" Integrated Review on UK foreign and defence policy.

However, senior Conservative MPs criticised the Government’s stance on China in the review, after Mr Sunak stopped short of calling China dangerous, instead referring to Beijing as a “challenge”.

Speaking in San Diego, Mr Sunak said: “China is a country with fundamentally different values to ours. And it represents a challenge to the world order. And that's why it's right that we are alert to that, and take steps to protect ourselves, protect both our values, stand up for our values and protect our interests.”

Mr Sunak added that the new Integrated Review makes this “crystal clear”.

“I think the actions of the Government over the past few months under my leadership demonstrate that we do take that challenge seriously,” he said, adding that the UK has blocked investment in sensitive sectors, such as semiconductors.

Mr Sunak also cited the removal of surveillance technology and the passing of a new law to ensure transparency and accountability for money that is going into the UK’s higher education institutes.

The Prime Minister added that China was not on a “predetermined course” and that was why he felt engagement with Beijing was “sensible and responsible”.

However, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, told the Telegraph he felt the Government “are in chaos over their policy,” adding: “China is a systemic threat.”

In an address to the Commons Sir Iain said the document’s passages on China had left him “confused as to what the Government’s position actually is”.

He questioned Mr Sunak’s description of China as an “epoch-defining challenge” and whether the Government actually regarded China as a threat.

After comparing the level of sanctions Britain has put on China compared to the US, he asked: "So does that now mean that China is a threat or an epoch-defining challenge or a challenging Government epoch, or even none of that?"

Rishi Sunak meeting - Getty
Rishi Sunak meeting - Getty

James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, replied: "With a country as big, as influential and significant as China, it is impossible to distil it down just to a simple set of words or a phrase. He will see through our actions that we do respond robustly to China when it behaves in a way that we disagree with."

Meanwhile, Alicia Kearns, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, urged the Government not to see China as primarily “an economic” threat. “To do so is to fail to recognise they are trying to undermine our security and our sovereignty,” she added.

Mr Sunak did hint that he might follow the US and the European Union's footsteps by banning the social media app TikTok on Government phones and devices.

He said Britain would "look at what our allies are doing" when it came to reviewing the presence of the Chinese-owned video sharing platform on staff equipment.

Washington and the European Commission have already moved to ban the app on devices issued to staff or on personal phones used for work.

Mr Sunak’s suggestion comes after senior backbenchers urged him to follow the US and Brussels' example.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

There was further discontent among MPs over the £5 billion funding boost pledged to the Ministry of Defence.

Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, warned the UK was operating on a "peacetime budget" as it was “sliding towards a new Cold War”.

Mr Ellwood said the Integrated Review in 2021 resulted in cuts for the UK's land, sea and air assets which "many in the House were hoping would be reversed today".

Sir Bernard Jenkin, a senior Tory MP, asked: “When are we going to see our Armed Forces restored to the critical mass that is capable of deterring the kind of aggression we're seeing in Ukraine, the kind of aggressive policies we're seeing from China?”

He added: “Because it seems that the £5 billion that is announced today is going to patch up what we should have been spending already, it's not going to make a huge difference."

The Integrated Review, which was refreshed in part owing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, also pledged to accelerate the UK’s efforts to “manage escalation risks and prepare for peace, while seeking to hold Russia accountable for war crimes”.

It added that “two developments of particular concern” were “China’s deepening partnership with Russia and Russia’s growing cooperation with Iran in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine”.

The document acknowledged that the world was existing “in a period of heightened risk and volatility that is likely to last beyond the 2030s”, as it cautioned that “tensions in the Indo-Pacific are increasing and conflict there could have global consequences greater than the conflict in Ukraine”.

The review stated that while the security and prosperity of the Euro-Atlantic will remain the UK’s core priority, this could not be separated from the UK’s “wider neighbourhood on the periphery of our continent and a free and open Indo-Pacific”.