U.K. PM Rishi Sunak says China a ‘systemic challenge’ to world order

Lester Holt interviews British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak aboard the USS Midway Museum

A more assertive China poses a “systemic challenge” to the global order, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told NBC News on Sunday, as Britain, the United States and Australia planned to unveil the latest steps in a defense partnership aimed at countering Beijing’s growing military might.

“The behavior that we’ve seen in China over recent times is concerning,” Sunak told NBC News’ Lester Holt at the USS Midway Museum shortly after arriving in San Diego for the three-way summit. China is “acting in a more authoritarian fashion at home” and is “more assertive overseas,” he said.

Watch the interview Monday on “TODAY” at 7 a.m. ET and “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT. 

“China represents the biggest state threat to our economic interests, for sure. And it’s a systemic challenge for the world order,” Sunak said.

President Joe Biden is hosting Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in San Diego to endorse newly agreed initiatives for the AUKUS defense pact, 18 months after the partnership was announced. The ambitious defense partnership aims to deliver nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra as part of a bid to counter China’s military buildup in Asia.

Lester Holt interviews British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak aboard the USS Midway Museum
Lester Holt interviews Sunak aboard the USS Midway Museum in San Diego on Sunday.Jim Seida / NBC News

China has countered by calling the AUKUS submarine deal “a blatant act of nuclear proliferation” that undermines regional peace and stability.

Sunak, a multimillionaire former banker and former finance minister, also weighed in on the collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank after federal regulators stepped in to back the lender’s deposits, saying that it was important to a large number of British technology companies. 

“I’ve been working through the weekend with our finance minister, the Chancellor and our Bank of England, our regulators to find an appropriate solution. We’ll be making an announcement about that very shortly,” he said.

Sunak, 42, took office on Oct. 25, 2022, after a period of political turbulence at home, becoming the United Kingdom’s third leader in seven weeks, following the collapse of Boris Johnson’s scandal-plagued government and the light-speed implosion of Liz Truss. 

He cited a recent summit with French President Emmanuel Macron in France last week and the trilateral meeting set for Monday in San Diego on the AUKUS defense pact as examples of Britain playing a vital role on the world stage.

“Britain is back,” added Sunak.

Under the AUKUS deal and pending approval from Congress, Australia is expected to acquire up to five U.S. Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines in the 2030s while Britain and the U.S. planned to help Australia eventually manufacture its own nuclear-powered fleet.

Although he cited concerns over China’s actions, Sunak said there was still a place for engagement with the economic superpower, including on climate issues and the stability of the global economy.

Asked how Britain would respond if China were to try to seize Taiwan through military force, Sunak declined to answer directly.

Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims as its territory, is under growing pressure from China, which has not ruled out the use of force in seizing control of the island. Taiwan’s most important international backer is the United States, which is bound by law to provide it with defensive weapons has long been vague as to whether it would intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese attack.

Sunak said the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine served to deter any country from launching an unprovoked attack.

“I think the best thing we can do to deter hostile action by any state anywhere, is doing what we’re doing right now in Ukraine. And that’s where we’ve seen an illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia. And the right thing to have done in that circumstance is to provide Ukraine with all the support that it needs to defend itself,” he said.

On Western military aid for Ukraine, he said: “I think it’s important right now that we accelerate and intensify our support to Ukraine.” 

He said London’s commitment to the AUKUS defense pact was part of an overall increase in defense spending by Britain, which he said would remain a leading military power.

“We’re investing more in our armed forces over the next couple of years, billions of pounds more. We’re increasing our defense spending, because my belief is that the world has become more volatile,” he said.

China has strived to portray itself as neutral in the Ukraine conflict, calling for a negotiated solution while refraining from condemning Russia’s aggression or even calling it an invasion. A 12-point peace proposal Beijing released last month was quickly dismissed by the West as too favorable to Russia.

The British government announced plans on Sunday to ramp up its defense spending by nearly $6 billion over the next two years.

Australia currently has a fleet of six conventionally powered submarines but nuclear-powered subs can remain underwater for much longer periods and are harder to detect than conventionally powered vessels.

Australia also agreed to U.S. submarine port visits in coming years, extending America’s naval reach, Biden administration and British officials said. 

The U.S.-made submarines for Canberra would cover a possible gap as Australia’s current fleet of subs will have to be retired in the 2030s. 

The new plans mark the first concrete steps to flesh out the trilateral defense partnership that was announced a year and a half ago, and are meant to signal that the three governments are moving forward on the ambitious project, experts said.

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