Australia–UK defence arrangements
Minister Carr and UK Foreign Minister William Hague, AUKMIN talks, Perth January 18 2013 Photo: Ron D'Raine

Editor’s note: we at ASPI value contestability and independence of thought so we’re sometimes surprised when people think that there’s a single ‘official’ ASPI position on a topic. That isn’t the case—we practice contestability inside ASPI as well and have no ‘house line’. Today’s posts are an example of that: Ben Schreer and I take a ‘glass half empty’ look at the recent announcement of enhanced Australia–UK defence arrangements, while Peter Jennings sees the positives of the new developments. AD

Strategy or industry?

By: Andrew Davies & Benjamin Schreer

There’s been a lot said in the last week or so about the enduring interests of the United Kingdom in our part of the world. The reason for that, of course, is the fifth Australia UK Ministerial Consultations (AUKMIN) held in Perth last week. Lots was made of the common strategic and economic interests, values and history of the two participants. And both parties are members of the Five Power Defence Arrangement—a regional security institution that looks at first glance like a legacy of another age, but still has a significant role in life.

Like all good high-level meetings, it produced a formal communiqué that reflected all of the positives of the joint relationship. And perhaps surprisingly to those who don’t follow these matters closely, it announced the signing of the Australia–United Kingdom Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty. The signing of a new treaty often flags part of a grand strategy. The signing of ANZUS, for example heralded a very significant turn in Australia’s thinking on its security—away, as it happens, from the United Kingdom after it was unable to provide for the security of its antipodean former colony in 1942 and towards the United States. It was a big deal.

This one’s not like that. In fact, it’s almost as remarkable for what it won’t say as for what it will say. Unlike ANZUS, there’s to be no mention of any responsibility to act together to respond to an armed attack on the other’s territory or armed forces—this isn’t a mutual defence pact. What it is about—at least as far as we can tell from the discussion so far, as the text isn’t public yet—is about formalising and deepening existing cooperation on defence and strategic matters.

This agreement formalises our existing bilateral defence relationship. It provides, for the first time, an overarching strategic framework for our bilateral defence relationship and encapsulates our close practical cooperation, including through the exchange of information and analysis on strategic defence and security issues; engagement on science, technology, equipment and support matters; ways to achieve value for money in defence acquisition and capability sustainment; and defence reform and transformation.

The language here is actually quite telling. It doesn’t read like two countries building on an already impressive power base to further bolster their security. It reads more like two countries that don’t actually have the resources to be ambitious as they would like to be. The United Kingdom still has global interests, but an increasingly small (in relative terms, which is what matters) hard power capability with which to police them. For example, the Royal Navy has declined in size from 400 warships in 1960 to well under 100 today—the smallest it has been since the time of Henry VIII. Given that the trend in Asian militaries is in the opposite direction, generating any leverage in this part of the world gets harder every year.

Likewise, Australia has also dramatically reduced its defence spending, which has left ADF force planning in a state of disarray during a period when its ‘strategic edge’ in Southeast Asia is rapidly declining. Fostering closer defence cooperation with its old ally does not only indulge Australia’s ‘Anglosphere’ tendencies. In times of ever scarcer resources, developing and building new major weapons platforms becomes ever more challenging for middle powers. Jointly developing the ‘Type-26 Global Combat Ship’ with the UK makes sense since we will have to replace the Navy’s ANZAC frigates anyway. And working closer together on cyber security should also be relatively straightforward.

So the new ‘defence pact’ looks a bit more like an exercise in industry economies of scale than a British ‘pivot’ towards our region, despite London repeatedly emphasising that the ‘centre of gravity’ is shifting towards Asia. Most likely, there will be only some symbolic port visits in Southeast Asia and contributions to FDPA exercises. It’s true that the UK maintains a battalion in Brunei, but it remains there at the request of the local government—which also happens to pay for them. And surely, the British government has a growing interest in increasing its share in the Southeast Asia defence market which, unlike in Europe, is growing rapidly. It’s probably no coincidence that the Indonesian government has just announced an intention to acquire a yet to be specified British frigate in the future.

As was the case in 1942, the British focus will understandably be much closer to home. This time it won’t be defending the English Channel but dealing with growing instability in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The Cameron government has pointed out that the terrorist threat in North Africa could last for decades and requires a global response. In this context, Britain also looks to Australia to make a potentially stronger contribution, including through the deployment of military force. Given that Australia’s priorities lie in the Asia–Pacific region, our grand strategic interests do thus not necessarily coincide. If anything, the ADF in coming years will have to make some tough choices as it tries to integrate into a changing US strategic posture in Asia, while strengthening defence cooperation with key regional players such as Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. Defence cooperation with the UK can only indirectly support Australia’s strategy to focus on the region.

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist, and Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI.

AUKMIN: it’s a good news story

By: Peter Jennings

I’m more optimistic about the prospects for increased UK–Australia defence cooperation than my colleagues Andrew and Ben, although I agree that it’s important to look for examples of genuinely substantive defence cooperation behind the language of communiqués, which will always emphasise the positive. Looking at the bilateral defence relationship, a number of strong positives emerge. First, Ministers from both countries are clearly putting more importance into their personal engagement. Frankly, AUKMIN wouldn’t have survived for five years if it had been left to officials, so governments in London and Canberra can take credit for a commitment to modernise the relationship.

A second positive is the strength of intelligence collaboration that continues to be the jewel in the crown of the relationship. Hard military operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has also taken the ADF and UK Armed Forces on a parallel journey. While it’s possible to make the Anglosphere sound like a stuffy and out-dated club, the fact is that the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand remain the most effective partnership in the world for their willingness to commit to real military operations. That has a value beyond many bilateral defence associations that operate under impressive-looking treaties but where practical cooperation is limited.

That said, geography and money—two of strategy’s iron constants—will put some limits on cooperation between the two countries. To the extent that Australia can, it should encourage the UK to more deeply engage in the Asia–Pacific. Britain is a serious, capable, rule-abiding international player able to help shape the behaviour of our less orderly region. We’re better off if the UK is actively engaged here. We’re also likely to find more common interests in Africa. As ADF Chief General Hurley indicated at an ASPI event yesterday, Africa is going to become strategically more important to the interests of many countries. There is value in the UK and Australia cooperating on managing our shared interests in Africa.

The new UK–Australia defence treaty will only be as good as the practical cooperation it facilitates. Budget constraints may slow what the two defence organisations would like to do but they surely create an opportunity to think laterally about cost and burden sharing. I see it as an important positive that the governments of both countries want to modernise the relationship rather than to let it drift as a historical relic. So the treaty should be welcomed and strenuous efforts made to give it practical focus and substance.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.