Later this month Perth will host the fifth meeting of AUKMIN, the annual gathering of Foreign and Defence ministers from Australia and the United Kingdom. It will be a curious gathering, overshadowed by a doubt that both sides won’t raise but which still dogs this oldest of Australia’s bilateral relations: neither country takes the other seriously as a potentially closer defence partner. Australia doubts that the UK’s new-found interest in Asia really goes beyond trade and investment to include deep engagement on security. The UK wonders how much interest Australia has left for Europe after the Asian Century White Paper tied us so firmly to the region’s economic success story.
The litmus test for substance in a bilateral defence relationship is what the two defence forces actually do together. Reading the last AUKMIN communiqué from January 2012, I’m forced to the reluctant conclusion that the answer is ‘not very much’. The communiqué shows that ministers ‘discussed’ all manner of strategic issues, from the Arab Spring to Fiji—going so far as to commit themselves to ‘sharing strategic insights and aligning… thinking’. The reader searches in vain for just one practical measure of planned and funded defence engagement. Both the 2012 and 2011 communiqués deploy the phrase that the two countries are ‘committed to working together in concrete and practical ways’ on security cooperation—effectively demonstrating the iron rule of communiqué writing: the less substance there is in the relationship, the more spruiking is needed.
The fact is that defence cooperation between the UK and Australia is limited and at risk of shrinking further. Because of cost saving measures, secondments between the forces are reducing, as is training and exercising. Intelligence exchanges and strategic dialogues are low cost and show that each country has a lot to gain from deeper engagement but they can’t wholly replace the practical value that comes from close service to service engagement. Of course there is a deep cultural affinity between the two Defence organisations, but wallowing in heritage and history is no substitute for an active and modern strategic relationship.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. At the coming AUKMIN meeting, Ministers should challenge their officials to develop a program of more active defence and security cooperation. It’s in the UK’s interests to do so because boosting their defence engagement in Asia will add credibility to their efforts to increase their diplomatic presence here. The region is looking for strategic not just trading partners. It’s in Australia’s interests to do more with the UK to show that our strategic engagement isn’t just limited to a handful of Asia’s emerging powers.
What might the UK and Australia do in a closer defence partnership? Some interesting possibilities were canvassed by UK Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in London at the end of 2012. In what the British media reported as a major increase in UK engagement in Africa and the Middle East, General Richards highlighted the development of ‘adaptable brigades to sustain enduring operations and routinely develop partnerships and knowledge around the world’.
… I envisage two or more adaptable brigades forming close tactical level relationships with particular countries in the Gulf and Jordan, for example. …In Africa, brigades would be tasked to support key allies in the east, west and south, whilst another might be given an Indian Ocean and SE Asian focus, allowing for much greater involvement in the FPDA, for example. …If we are to influence, we must know what drives our friends and how to motivate them. …This will require tough decisions. If we are to invest properly in some relationships, others will naturally get less attention.
There’s an opportunity here for Australia. If General Richards is really serious about pursuing ‘much greater involvement in the Five Power Defence Arrangements’ the ADF is the natural partner with whom the UK should develop a close, tactical level relationship. AUKMIN 2013 should publicly commit to building to that outcome. In his RUSI speech, General Richards also emphasised the importance of ‘the new UK Joint Expeditionary Force’ as a vehicle for a much more closely integrated joint force capability for sea, land and air operations. In structure and organisation, this will bring the UK military closer to the ADF model, which has been in practical development since the 1999 operation in East Timor. There are some obvious possibilities here for closer engagement as the ADF brings its new amphibious capabilities into service.
AUKMIN 2013 unusually presents two quite divergent choices for ministers. If the two governments are committed to closer cooperation, the meeting could set out steps for a significantly closer relationship that would more deeply engage the UK in the region. On the other hand, if the communiqué reads like the 2012 one, you’ll know that the horse refused the jump and that the two countries will stay deep in their comfort zones, ‘aligning their thinking’ and doing very little at all.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user Foreign and Commonwealth Office.