This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Defence cooperation between Australia and the United Kingdom has deep roots, reflecting similarities in the two countries’ foreign policy values and strategic perspectives as well as binding sentiment and tradition. However, clear thinking is necessary about where Australian and British international security interests overlap and what form practical collaboration should take in the future if bilateral defence relations are to develop in a way that will bring tangible benefits to both countries.
Australian and British forces fought alongside each other in successive conflicts, from Sudan in the 1880s, through the Anglo-Boer War, the two World Wars, Korea and the Malayan Emergency to Confrontation with Indonesia from 1963-6. But Japan’s advances and British losses in East and Southeast Asia in 1941-2, notably Tokyo’s capture of Singapore, led to Australia’s strategic reorientation and, ultimately, the ANZUS Treaty. Britain’s own strategic realignment during the 1960s, when it applied to join the European Economic Community and decided to withdraw militarily from ‘East of Suez’, further diminished bilateral relations.
Defence cooperation between Australia and the UK never entirely withered, ensured by cultural and political affinity, similar perspectives on international affairs, inter-military links and British defence-industry interests, as well as continuing connections through the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence arrangement (also including Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (with Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore). But it was not until the early twenty-first century, as a result of converging strategic interests in the context of a broad US-led coalition of mainly democratic countries, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then against Islamic State that Australian and British forces found themselves again fighting in parallel.
In 2013 the Australian and British governments, recognising new common interests, enthused with notions of an ‘Anglosphere’, and with the potential benefits of defence-industrial collaboration in mind, moved to resuscitate bilateral defence relations with the Australia-UK Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty – surprisingly, the first-ever comprehensive framework for defence cooperation between the two countries. In August, the defence-industrial dimension to the partnership deepened when the two governments set up a ministerial-level Defence Industry and Capability Dialogue. One clear focus is BAE Systems’ bid – submitted in August – to build in Australia the British Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the RAN’s Future Frigate (SEA 5000). But there is also potential for broader collaboration, notably with respect to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that both countries will operate for many decades to come.
Defence-industrial collaboration may grow stronger – particularly if Canberra selects the Global Combat Ship. But in order to advance bilateral defence cooperation the parties will need to find practical ways of engaging more closely and powerfully in relation to common strategic interests. These are pre-eminently in the Asia Pacific (or ‘Indo Pacific’ in Canberra’s current terminology), and particularly Southeast Asia. As Canberra’s 2013 and 2016 Defence White Papers emphasise, Australian strategic thinking and defence engagement post-Afghanistan is re-focusing on the Asia Pacific, particularly in light of China’s growing challenge to a regional order that has brought both geopolitical stability and widespread prosperity.
At the same time, the 2016 Brexit referendum result reinforced the impulse of the Conservative government in London to think of the UK’s international security interests in more expansive terms. Even before the referendum, Britain’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review emphasised the need to ‘address global challenges and strengthen the rules-based international order’ and made a commitment to strengthen alliances with Asia Pacific partners including Australia. To strengthen defence engagement in the region, this year the UK established a small regional British Defence Staff office in Singapore. In capability terms, the UK’s armed forces are being re-oriented towards a larger global role. The British army’s expeditionary capability is being doubled in size. Even more importantly, the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will provide the basis for restoring the UK’s global naval power-projection, and British ministers have emphasised that these ships will start deploying to the Asia Pacific from the early 2020s. With their striking power and long reach, British carrier groups will represent a significant additional capability in Australia’s region.
The alliance with the United States will remain the cornerstone of Australia's security relations, yet it makes sense for Australia to engage the UK (along with other quasi-allies including France, Japan and Singapore and partners such as India and Indonesia) to help mitigate the potentially negative consequences of a shifting distribution of power in the region as China becomes more powerful and the relative decline of the US as an Asia Pacific power continues. Given the UK’s potential to contribute greater resources to Asia Pacific security, bilateral defence cooperation supporting the strategic interests of Australia and the UK in the region could include:
- More detailed discussions between Australian and British defence officials regarding coordinated responses to adverse contingencies in the region, particularly Southeast Asia.
- Coordination of measures to support the Five Power Defence Arrangements, particularly in terms of enhancing the operational value of FPDA exercises through incorporating new capabilities (as agreed by the FPDA defence ministers in June this year).
- Planning for bilateral naval exercises in the early 2020s when the UK deploys an aircraft carrier group to the Asia Pacific for the first time in 50 years.
- Joint development of the UK’s naval logistic facility in Singapore to support future naval deployments to Southeast Asia by both countries.
How practicable these suggestions are will depend in large measure on the degree of commitment by the UK. A revived British defence role in the Asia Pacific is by no means certain. While the present UK government is committed to increase defence spending until 2022, political change and economic problems as a result of Brexit could derail defence plans. Security challenges in Europe, the Middle East or Africa could distract the UK from the Asia Pacific. In late 2017, though, the outlook is still broadly encouraging.