IT is hard to think of two countries that have more in common than Australia and Britain. We share a language and a rich history — and, in the main, a sense of humour. We are both maritime trading nations. Australia inherited many fine British institutions including parliamentary democracy and the common law.
Yet, as a recent Lowy Institute poll demonstrates, too often the relationship is focused on the past rather than the future, on sentiment rather than shared interests. More than eight in 10 Australians see the Australia-Britain bilateral relationship as important (with 28 per cent saying it is “very important’’).
However, when asked to choose Australia’s “best friend’’ from a list of six countries, respondents ranked Britain third in popularity behind the US and New Zealand. And when those who saw the relationship as important were asked why, two-thirds said it was because of the “strong historical and cultural ties between our two countries”.
Only one in four Australians said it was because Britain was a major economic and strategic power, even though it is a top 10 economy, a nuclear-weapons state and a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
This is a good time, therefore, for our two nations to move beyond history, culture and cricket, and focus our relationship on our shared interests in the region towards which the world’s wealth and power is shifting rapidly: Asia.
One vehicle for doing so is the new Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, which was announced by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and British Foreign Secretary William Hague this year and co-hosted in Britain by the Ditchley Foundation and the Lowy Institute recently. The dialogue brought together experts and high-level officials from the two countries. While the proceedings were private, we can convey our personal impressions as co-chairmen.
Our two countries come at Asia from different geographic angles. Yet we both have long histories in the region and deep knowledge of it. Our experience and our analyses are complementary, and we should make more of them.
We have strong trading and investment relationships with China that are complemented by robust diplomatic relationships: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has just wrapped up a visit to Britain and President Xi Jinping is slated to visit Australia for the G20 summit later this year.
On the other hand, we believe that neither of our national debates about Asia should ever be shrunk to the dimensions of China. We must think about the region as a whole. We must also tend carefully, and pay more attention to, our relations with other Asian powers, including Japan, Indonesia, India, South Korea and Vietnam.
Both Australia and Britain are allies of the US — indeed we are arguably Washington’s two most reliable allies. We both believe that American leadership remains of immense benefit to the world, and that right now more is needed, not less.
We both support the strategic logic of President Barack Obama’s rebalance towards Asia but are concerned that America’s strategic discipline on this should not waver.
Whatever the distractions of other troubles at home and abroad, Washington must not lose its focus on the pivot. US allies such as Canberra and London should speak clearly to the Obama administration on the importance of persisting with the rebalance, and they also should be prepared to help shoulder its burdens.
This is because Australia and Britain have important and legitimate stakes in the Asian strategic order — no doubt more than our publics tend to assume. Both our nations benefit enormously from the region’s prosperity, underwritten by a rules-based order and the US strategic presence, but we cannot be passive bystanders, simply hoping to sell as much as we can.
The tensions in parts of the region, not least northeast Asia, are rising, and the risks of conflict are real. We need to help mitigate these risks and be clearer on how we would react if conflict were to break out.
Both our nations have much to contribute to Asian security, from counter-piracy and the search for Malaysia Airlines’ flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean to typhoon relief in The Philippines and our partnership with Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand through the five-power defence arrangements. Our navies have strong traditions of conducting defence diplomacy and helping other countries build capacity to face their own challenges, including in intelligence and counter-terrorism.
In engaging with Asian partners, a commitment to free trade, liberal democratic values and a rule-of-law approach to regional security problems remains a shared strength of our two nations. We should not hesitate to speak out when these commitments and values are undermined by developments in the region. Asia is undergoing major strategic and political change, including an uptick in Chinese maritime assertiveness, the normalisation of Japan’s defence position and leadership transitions in the region’s two largest democracies, India and Indonesia.
This is precisely the time for regional and global stakeholders, such as Australia and Britain, to look for creative new ways to work together and with regional partners to help contribute to Asia’s prosperity and stability. Our dialogue aims to do just that.
Sir John Holmes is director of the Ditchley Foundation in Oxfordshire, England. Dr Michael Fullilove is executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney. They are the co-chairmen of the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue.