We must make more of renewed UK alliance

A version of this article appeared originally in The Australian, 13 January 2022

Professor Rory Medcalf

It is a truth universally acknowledged that two nations in possession of shared values and convergent interests must be in want of closer security cooperation.

Australia and the United Kingdom are renewing their partnership for a competitive era, especially the authoritarian assault by China and Russia on a liberal international order.

It is easy to caricature this engagement as a passing fiction of Anglosphere nostalgia and the political closeness of current leaders in Canberra and London.

So the challenge for both governments, as they prepare for high-level talks expected next week, is to affirm their seriousness by plotting for the long-term.

This means setting a practical agenda that balances ambition and realism, following through on last September’s announcement of the AUKUS security technology agreement, which also crucially involved the United States.

Early work is needed on an infrastructure to future-proof Australia-UK relations - across government agencies and parliamentary aisles - against shifting political fancies on either side.

After all, it will take decades for geopolitical threats and capability responses to fully play out, notably Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines to be built under AUKUS.

The UK and Australia will retain differences in security priorities, notably the threat Britain faces from Putin’s Russia.

Still, their combined strategic weight is considerable. The UK and Australia have respectively the world’s 5th and 13th largest economies, and 5th and 12th largest defence budgets, with exceptional intelligence and cyber capabilities.

These advantages are augmented by strong records in diplomacy, education, innovation, political institutions and resilience. Australia-UK security partnership thus makes sense, beyond even the bonds of history, kindred political systems as liberal (and multicultural) democracies, a tapestry of personal connections, vast stocks of two-way investment, and reinvigorated trade links.

Longstanding security trust is reflected in a close intelligence relationship, institutional links between armed forces, and almost continuous operational experience together.

All this pre-dates and ranges beyond AUKUS. Yet this is also a relationship prone to fluctuations of political expectation, compounded by a tendency to take each other for granted.

With foundational historic ties and a common language, our policy elites have sometimes presumed to understand one another better than they actually do.

For instance, we have recently exited a phase where the potential for the UK as a security actor in Asia was underestimated in Australia.

For its part, the British policy establishment was tardy in recognising the seriousness of Australia’s China problem - and the defensive logic of our response, such as in blocking Huawei from the nation’s critical infrastructure.

But all that has changed. London has pivoted, faster than most of Europe, to recognise Xi Jinping’s China less as a river of gold and more as an overflowing reservoir of systemic risk.

The similarities in Australian and British geopolitical assessments are striking, underscored in London’s 2021 integrated review and Canberra’s 2020 defence update.

These inform a new toughness and expansiveness in the strategic thinking of both governments, accepted at senior levels in the respective oppositions.

This is about moving beyond shoring up the status quo, recognising the need to shape the strategic environment - even if that means short term pain.

All the will in the world won’t reduce the physical distance from London to Canberra, or the fact that both nations face crowded horizons of hazard, distinct national pressures and the perpetual policy dynamism that comes with democracy.

Still, a post-Brexit UK with a global outlook has recognised the Indo-Pacific as the international system’s new centre of gravity.

Nobody is pretending that Australia and the UK - alone or together - have sufficient resources to defend all their wide-ranging interests across the Indo-Pacific, let alone globally.

Instead, both countries could divide responsibilities, coordinate resources to fill gaps in one another’s strategies, and pursue common goals with others, notably the Quad partners America, India and Japan.

Bipartisanship should be a priority, however hard that is to envisage in an election year. AUKUS and the Australia-UK partnership need thorough buy-in, beyond in-principle assent by opposition leaders, and that requires governments to take a maximalist approach to cross-parliamentary briefing and engagement.

Bureaucratic scaffolding is also needed. In a new policy paper by the National Security College and the Royal United Services Institute, we recommend bilateral working groups to coordinate policy.

In addition to the AUKUS agenda, these could address Indo-Pacific strategy, pandemic response, climate policy, supply chain security, protection of democratic institutions, foreign interference - and perhaps even early planning for future shocks, like great-power rivalry in the Arctic and Antarctica.

More immediately, we should expand access to each other’s defence bases, to enable a more sustained UK military presence in the Indo-Pacific. Logistics agreements should be formalised to at least the level negotiated with Japan.

If the UK is serious about AUKUS, it should deliver regular visits by its Astute-class nuclear-powered submarines to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. The similarity of UK and Australian naval operating cultures is reason for Australian submariners to train through exchange service on British as well as American vessels.

On the cyber and critical technologies aspect of AUKUS, Canberra and London could develop pilot activities in artificial intelligence, quantum computing or unmanned underwater vehicles. This could galvanise trilateral cooperation - and perhaps involve additional countries, such as France, Japan, Canada and New Zealand.

Our national security and research workforces are overstretched. A response should be to pool human capital on government projects to advance shared interests, through labour mobility, exchange arrangements, and mutual recognition of security clearances. Secondments between Australian and UK agencies should become the norm.

Of course, it would be counterproductive to recast all our Indo-Pacific diplomacy through an Anglo-Australian prism. This would readily be distorted by China as ‘Western’ imposition on Asia.

Instead, it makes sense to focus on countries and issues where a Canberra-London alignment can coordinate with regional partners in protecting their sovereignty.

Australia and the UK could pursue a new trilateral dialogue with India, including to allay any concern that AUKUS might undercut - rather than augment - the Quad.

Malaysia is a swing state in China’s bid for dominance and a partner for Australia and the UK under the Five Power Defence Arrangements. It would gain from coordinated efforts to strengthen its cyber defence, maritime surveillance and resilience.

A delicate issue remains the intersection with European diplomacy, given French concerns over how AUKUS displaced its submarine contract.

Canberra and London should highlight the convergences of their Indo-Pacific visions with EU and ASEAN policy outlooks, on principles of sovereignty, international law and non-coercion. This would affirm the 21st Century Australia-UK relationship for what it is: a bulwark of the common good.

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University and author of Contest for the Indo-Pacific.

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We must make more of renewed UK alliance

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