Commentary |
21 January 2022

More future than past in UK connection

The comfort blanket of shared history obscures the fact that Britain and Australia have many complementary assets to offer in their relations with the rest of the Indo-Pacific. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Ben Bland
Ben Bland

In the midst of a security crisis in Ukraine and a domestic political crisis that may unseat Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign and defence ministers have chosen to fly to the other side of the world for talks with their Australian counterparts.

It looks like a strange decision at first glance.

But this week’s visit by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggests that Britain is serious about its “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, which was announced last year as part of a broad review of British security and foreign policy.

This shift has been welcomed by an Australian government that has a similar view of China as a growing threat to the existing global order, and shares many political inclinations (and political advisers) with its conservative British peers.

In addition to the common outlooks of their respective governing parties, the deep historical and social connections between the two countries make this an easy relationship – so easy that some Australian diplomats and security analysts fear that Canberra is reaching once more for the comfort blanket of the Anglosphere.

That fear is compounded by scepticism about what a post-Brexit Britain can bring to the table beyond post-imperial delusions of grandeur.

Certainly, one predictable outcome of this week’s visit is a chorus of warm official talk about shared values, the need to uphold the “rules-based order” (whatever that is), and standing up for “liberty” in the face of coercive behaviour from the Chinese government.

Complementary interests and influence

However, the real value of the UK-Australia partnership in the Indo-Pacific stems not just from what the countries have in common but from their complementary interests and influence in the region.

This is particularly apparent in south-east Asia, which is the geographic centre of the Indo-Pacific and the primary arena for geopolitical competition between China on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other.

For reasons of proximity and history, south-east Asia is naturally more important to Australia than it is to the UK. But the British government has intensified its engagement with the region over the past two years, with ministers travelling to the region as often as their Australian counterparts.

Australia has better developed security relationships across the region, underpinned by its membership of key regional bodies such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

But while the British military has been thinly stretched because of budget cuts and security crises closer to home, the UK has technologies and capabilities that can augment Australia’s, as the nascent AUKUS partnership is meant to demonstrate.

The two governments will need to spend less time talking about their shared values and more time listening to regional partners.

On the economic front, Australia has more extensive trade relationships with south-east Asia, but Britain has a far more globalised corporate sector, with deep regional roots and world-beating companies in the finance, technology and healthcare industries. And the UK can leverage London’s financial centre as a catalyst to provide the large-scale investment that south-east Asian nations need to continue developing.

Cheap anti-China rhetoric doesn’t help

Co-ordinating more effectively doesn’t have to mean doing everything side by side, as is too often the case with the US-Australia relationship. In fact, Britain and Australia can capitalise on their different diplomatic styles, with the UK carrying the weight of its seat on the UN Security Council and the burden of its imperial history, while Australia can take a nimbler, more pragmatic approach to regional engagement.

The key to making UK-Australia co-operation in the Indo-Pacific greater than the sum of its parts is moving beyond cheap rhetoric about a grand struggle for freedom against China. Working alongside other partners such as the US, Japan and the Europeans, Australia and Britain need to focus on helping our south-east Asian neighbours to become more secure, prosperous and resilient in their own right.

Although Australia and Britain feel comfortable dialling down economic, technological and political ties with China, that is not a luxury that any south-east Asian nation can afford.

The best way to achieve a stable regional order is not to lecture south-east Asians about China’s flaws (of which they are well aware, thanks to their geography and history) but to support their development efforts so that they can engage with Beijing on more balanced terms.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Truss, her British counterpart, have made a promising start this week, signing agreements to co-operate on infrastructure investment and cyber security in the Indo-Pacific. The challenge, as always, will be implementation, turning diplomatic memos into action on the ground.

To succeed in this endeavour, the Australian and British governments will need to spend less time talking about their shared values and more time listening to and learning from regional partners.

Australia and the UK bring different but complementary forms of influence to the Indo-Pacific. And there are many synergies to be had, if their approach is framed by the region’s practical needs as much as the interests of outside powers.