Last week’s AUKMIN consultations between Australia and the United Kingdom, the first since 2018, suggested both sides were injecting new energy into this relationship.
As Australia increasingly “mainstreams” European partnerships within its Indo-Pacific focused foreign policy, it’s worth scrutinising the AUKMIN outcomes closely. How much does the UK’s worldview align with Australia’s? What more should Canberra expect of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Indo-Pacific tilt?
First, the UK’s focus is global. While Australia’s focus going into the talks was squarely on the Indo-Pacific, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss focused equally on several global “malign actors”, namely Russia, China and Iran. At the AUKMIN press conference, Truss emphasised that the UK and Australia were experiencing “global challenges with multiple aggressors”.
Second, Truss’s worldview is ideologically driven, consistently presenting global challenges as characterised by a contest between democratic and authoritarian regimes.
In her speech at the Lowy Institute, she described the goal of the UK’s foreign policy as “building a global network of liberty”. Australia and the United Kingdom, she said at the AUKMIN joint press conference, were “standing shoulder to shoulder in defence of freedom and democracy”, facing down growing threats from Russia, Iran and China.
It is no criticism of the United Kingdom to point out that this worldview is different to Australia’s.
Lumping Russia and China together as malign authoritarian regimes also misunderstands the nature of the dilemma posed by China in the Indo-Pacific.
The UK’s focus on Russia is entirely appropriate, given growing concerns about an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is also consistent with the UK’s 2021 “Integrated Review” of security, defence, development and foreign policy, which noted that the “bulk” of the UK’s security focus would remain in the Euro-Atlantic area.
And while Australia’s approach to a values-based foreign policy is more ambivalent – Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne specifically emphasised at the AUKMIN joint press conference that Australia could work with countries of different political systems – the UK’s approach is a natural one, given its geography, history and quest for a post-Brexit global leadership role.
The real problem with the UK’s global focus on authoritarian aggressors is that it deliberately makes prioritisation and resource allocation impossible. If China is malign the world over, why prioritise the Indo-Pacific? And if China and Russia are acting in concert, why prioritise one threat over the other?
Treating China on a par with other malign actors unhelpfully downplays the scale of the challenge posed by Beijing – described by the Biden administration’s interim national security guidance as “the only competitor” able to “mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”
In this context, it is worth pointing out that neither Truss nor Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace provided new information on the direction of the UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt. The UK has made concrete commitments as part of the tilt – becoming a dialogue partner to ASEAN, applying to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), undertaking extensive ministerial travel in Southeast Asia, and sending a Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific for seven months in 2021. But what else should Australia expect from the United Kingdom? Neither Truss nor Wallace could say.
Lumping Russia and China together as malign authoritarian regimes also misunderstands the nature of the dilemma posed by China in the Indo-Pacific, raising the risk that policy responses will be poorly framed.
In Southeast Asia, China presents a serious long-term challenge to United States and allied influence precisely because it is not an aggressor like Russia in Eastern Europe. In its own neighbourhood, China generally operates below the threshold that it calculates would generate “pushback” from regional countries.
The real threat posed by China is not one of economic coercion – which Beijing has applied against Australia without success – but of a growing long-term sphere of influence over the many countries for whom China remains an important trading partner and increasingly important source of foreign investment.
And instead of a bright distinction between authoritarian “puppets” of China and partners in a global network of liberty, the reality is far messier.
One brief illustration of the region’s complexity can be found in Myanmar, cited by Truss as a puppet of China. In fact, Myanmar has a historically vexed and untrusting relationship with China and maintains close ties to this day with the defence forces of India – cited by Truss as a partner in the global network of liberty.
Fusing malign threats from Russia with those from China suits the United Kingdom, which hopes to secure continued focus from an overstretched Washington on European security issues.
But geography makes it natural that the United Kingdom and Australia have different priorities. Although Australia cannot ignore Russia’s aggressions in Eastern Europe, policymakers in Canberra should be cautious about the implications of the UK’s approach and its invitation to abandon prioritisation, particularly in the context of relations with the United States.
The 2021 AUKUS announcement contained a welcome clear recognition by all three countries of deteriorating circumstances in the Indo-Pacific. It would be to Australia’s detriment if the UK’s global focus on malign actors held sway in Washington.