Whoever its PM, the UK is a vital partner for Australia
5 Sep 2022| and

Later today, either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will be declared the winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest and the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. Whoever takes the honours, and whatever tribulations they face in the months ahead, we mustn’t lose sight of Australia’s vital and deepening strategic partnership with the UK.

The new prime minister will face an overflowing inbox, including—among other challenges—a cost-of-living crisis that is set to worsen over the northern hemisphere winter.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that the new leader will be so beleaguered with domestic woes that Australia has little to gain from early engagement. Australia has vital interests in how Britain positions itself on the international stage and the capacity to leverage British influence to further our aims.

Britain still matters. It remains an important, like-minded champion of liberal order and values, including free trade. The UK is ASEAN’s most recent dialogue partner, so its ministers will become frequent fliers to this region. They will add their voices to calls for maintenance of the rules-based order, the return to democracy in Myanmar and steadfastness in the face of Chinese coercion. Britain is ahead of China in the queue to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, setting high standards for accession that Beijing and others will have to meet.

Crucially, the UK recognises Australia’s outsized contribution to international order and supports our place at the top table. For instance, as the G7 chair in 2021, the UK—in particular, Liz Truss as foreign secretary—invited Australia as a guest to help keep the group focused on the Indo-Pacific. Sadly, Germany hasn’t followed Britain’s example.

But the area on which Australia should focus its engagement with the UK is defence and security.

Britain is a veto-wielding, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council. The 2% of national income that the UK government spends on defence, which looks set to climb towards 3%, adds pressure on miserly NATO partners to better meet their commitments.

Our defence and intelligence officers work side by side every day through the Five Eyes arrangement to keep us safe. Crucially, the British government’s reversal of its original 5G decision, ensuring that the UK wouldn’t rely on Chinese telecommunications companies for critical technology, set the foundation for an even closer security and intelligence relationship and was the precursor to the AUKUS partnership.

The 5G decision also predated last year’s integrated review of Britain’s foreign and defence settings, which includes a surprisingly well fleshed out Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, building on foundations that include the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.

Whatever our assessment of Brexit, Britain continues to help stiffen European backbones to confront Russia and China. For example, Britain effectively leads the Joint Expeditionary Force, a coalition of 10 northern European countries that has played an important role in responding to the Ukraine crisis. Britain has staunchly supported Ukraine in word and deed, including with a collaborative intelligence effort to expose Russian disinformation. Britain is Kyiv’s second most important military donor after the US and has contributed a higher proportion of GDP to helping Ukraine than Washington or any major European country. Despite Russian threats, Britain extended welcome security assurances to Finland and Sweden during their transition to NATO membership.

Canberra should take note of the plaudits London’s support for Ukraine has garnered from President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Eastern European and Baltic leaders. Not all pathways to European hearts and minds run through Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

Thankfully, all the signs are that Australia’s new government under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recognises the importance of engaging Britain. AUKUS of course plays a part in this. With the deadline for a decision on a submarine design only seven months away, Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles was in Britain last week visiting shipyards and striking a deal for the joint training of submariners. It may have been tempting to hold off visits until the new PM and cabinet were sworn in, but it was the right call by Marles, showing the Australia–UK relationship is substantive irrespective of who is leader.

AUKUS is about the joint delivery of advanced defence and security capability, not diplomatic grandstanding. However, the maintenance of a trilateral partnership over decades still requires sustained political care and attention. As security expert Euan Graham has pointed out, Australian strategists must be wary of misconceiving AUKUS solely as a deepening of the Australia–US alliance because that would overlook the real contribution Britain can make to shared capability, which is one of the reasons it has enjoyed a unique defence partnership with the US for decades.

Let’s also correct a myth: there is no need to choose between engaging Britain and seeking deeper relations with Europe. Albanese was right to restore good relations with France by making an early visit to Paris and paying the necessary dues for cancellation of the Attack-class submarine. Marles’s follow-up visit to France to ‘enhance military cooperation’ shows an understanding of the need to work with multiple like-minded partners.

As my ASPI colleague Daria Impiombato and I wrote recently, Europe is at an inflection point on China. Australia mustn’t miss this crucial opportunity to share our experience of Chinese coercion. Our aim should be locking Europe and NATO into recognising the strategic linkages between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security, which is a top priority in this era of Sino-Russian ‘no limits’ partnership. To steer the European behemoth will take teamwork, working with partners in Europe as well as the US. We shouldn’t let ill-founded beliefs about British irrelevance on the continent blind us to the help the UK can provide.

Albanese and his cabinet have a busy and crucial summit season towards the end of this year. Britain will be part of that picture, with the new leader likely to attend the G20. Continuing to shift our bilateral relationship from one based on historical ties into one focused on the current and emerging substantive strategic and security challenges is in both our national interests.