Australia is grappling with China while Britain struggles with Brexit. These old allies need each other

By Dr John Hemmings

The scene for the 10th annual Australia-UK Ministerial (AUKMIN) 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 on 20th July. While the visuals were good, it was clear that both teams came to the table with their own sets of problems.

For Australia, it has been an annus horriblis as it has lurched from one from diplomatic spat with Beijing to another—nearly all of them driven by Canberra’s belief that the Middle Kingdom is trialling a new type of great power/small power relationship with it. Added to that has been a growing fear that the United States under Donald Trump might not be as reliable an ally as it has come to expect. The push to diversify its partnerships has been the result. For the UK, most of the problems stem from the June 2016 referendum and subsequent battles with Brussels. The domestic cycle of near-crises makes Whitehall and Westminster feel that one is living on a wobbly spinning top.

However, despite the domestic and foreign policy travails of the two countries, there is much to celebrate in this year’s AUKMIN. For one thing, both are reacting to the seeming crisis in American leadership and the Russo-Chinese challenge to the rules-based order by coming together and reaffirming their security relationship and defence ties. Europe’s loss seems to be Australia’s gain as the UK begins to rethink its position in the world and re-engage with the Indo-Pacific. The recent commissioning of nine British-designed warships, worth £20 billion, to be built in Australian shipyards is a strong symbol of British commitment to its Five-Eye ally and of its maritime ambitions in the region.

However, given that all of this came only ten days after Boris Johnson’s resignation, there are questions as to the ability of the UK to manage the Brexit process and to create a sustainable Global Britain strategy for its post-Europe period. Is it realistic to enhance the UK’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific? Doubtless there are many who see Russia as the greater (and nearer) of threats, and are far more concerned about the Middle East than the Far East.

However, as a Henry Jackson Society report sought to argue earlier this year, the future of the global economy will be in the Indo-Pacific, not in Russia or the Middle East. The global middle class will grow 50% from current levels by 2052, leading to an explosion in growth and new population centres popping up along the Indian Ocean coastal trail. As a result, trade and its physical manifestation of shipping will also increase exponentially. In other words, Britain must go to Asia and she must go by sea. Not to do so would be to ignore the trends of our time.

How Australia and the UK interact in that part of the world will become an essential part of Global Britain. One area that might be of mutual interest is the South Pacific. While it is a part of the world that few—if any—Foreign Secretaries think about, that might have to change. The reason once again is Chinese influence, as Beijing begins developing new relationships with Pacific island states. While development has always been viewed as benign, Chinese maritime strategy has seen it use development as a proxy for its Mahanian ambitions.

Dr John Hemmings is Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.

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