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The scene for the 10th annual Australia-UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN) earlier this summer was visually stunning. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne met with their British counterparts, Jeremy Hunt and Gavin Williamson, at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh for the AUKMIN meeting. While the visuals were good, it was clear that both liberal democracies came to these negotiations nurturing some very serious misgivings about their strategic environment.
For Australia, it has been an annus horribilis, as it has lurched from one diplomatic spat with Beijing to another, all of them driven by Canberra’s belief that Beijing has been meddling in its domestic affairs and waging an influence campaign among the Chinese diaspora, as well as Australia’s own political elite. For the UK – apart from the running sore of Brexit – the year has been dominated by the Skripal incident in Salisbury, which saw the use of a nerve agent on British soil, resulting in the expulsion of 23 diplomats, and a crackdown on Russian oligarch investments inside the City of London. As these two neo-authoritarian powers become increasingly bold, both London and Canberra have had to deal with a US that is seemingly less reliable, or perhaps more transactional.
It has been an odd time for Western liberal democracies, as they have slowly begun to react to the new geopolitical competition that has intensified in the wake of 2014, when China militarised islands in the South China Sea, and Russia invaded and occupied Ukrainian territory. As a result, the AUKMIN joint ministers’ statement resonated with concerns for the rules-based order with a noticeable emphasis on the Indo-Pacific ‘which is open, prosperous, and inclusive’.
While there is a sensible debate on how far the UK can extend its resources to the region, a Henry Jackson Society report sought to argue earlier this year that the Indo-Pacific presents economic opportunities as well as geopolitical challenges. The region accounts for 60% of the global population and accounts for nearly two-thirds of global economic growth; it is – according to the IMF – the world’s most dynamic region by a wide margin. The decision of the UK and Australia to strengthen their track 1.5 Asia Dialogue last year recognised these dynamics.
How Australia and the UK decide to interact in the Indo-Pacific will become an essential part of the Global Britain strategy. The two states already cooperate in the Five Powers Defence Arrangements and both have growing defence and intelligence ties to Japan. Additionally, they might develop other nodes of regional cooperation, such as a potential Australia–France–UK trilateral, or the already-existing US–Japan–India–Australia Quadrilateral.
While there are serious concerns about the UK’s budgetary capabilities – witness the searing disagreement between Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Prime Minister Theresa May about alleged proposed cuts to defence this past June – the Indo-Pacific region does at least present economic returns. The agreement by London and Canberra to pursue an ambitious bilateral free trade agreement once the UK has left the EU and its interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership are both opportunities, as is the budding defence industrial relationship. The recent revelation that the two signed a £20-billion deal for nine UK-designed warships might well be an indication of such returns.
As the region is set to lead global economic growth over the next 30 years, it makes sense for the UK to invest in capabilities and diplomatic reach in-region.
While distance still offsets the warmth found in the AUKMIN 2018, the fact is that working together can help both overcome this. The Royal Navy already has one base in Singapore. Perhaps basing rights might be exchanged between both navies; if successful, rights might even be extended reciprocally with the French, which have bases in New Caledonia and French Polynesia. In return, French and Australian marines may dock at British facilities in Singapore.
Another area that might be of mutual interest is that of the South Pacific. While it is a part of the world that few – if any – foreign secretaries think about, we could see this begin to change. Over the past few years, Beijing has been pouring money and developments into these tiny Pacific Island states. While development has traditionally been viewed as benign, the possibility of Chinese submarines docking at a recently built dock in Vanuatu – an island sitting on Australia’s shipping route to its ally, the US – has become a serious concern in Canberra this year. Britain’s decision to massively expand its economic and diplomatic footprint on Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tonga will be warmly welcomed in Australia.
While it is true that the ‘tyranny of distance’ will keep the UK from becoming an Indo-Pacific regional power, Britain can become a significant player. There are multiple nodes of access available, including the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, the Commonwealth and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing structure. One excellent bit of news from the AUKMIN Ministerial statement is the prospect that London and Canberra will begin coordinating much more closely on foreign direct investment into sensitive digital infrastructure, hopefully avoiding another debacle similar to that which occurred when London allowed the sale of a British data cloud centre to a Chinese consortium in 2017, causing the Australian Department of Defence to remove its data from the company.
Looking into the future, we see that the traditional picture of a US-led Western alliance confronted by Russian and Chinese authoritarianism has returned to mainstream global politics. Only this time, it is not always clear that the US will be as willing to ‘bear any burden’. This requires those great powers and middle powers to band together all the more tightly.
John Hemmings is the Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society and Milia Hau is a Research Assistant at the Centre.
BANNER IMAGE: Australian and UK defence and foreign ministers meet as part of AUKMIN 2018. Courtesy of PA Images/David Cheskin
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.