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Will Labour keep Britain at full tilt in the Pacific?

Posted By on July 8, 2024 @ 09:32



Britain has a new prime minister, Keir Starmer, leading its first Labour government in 14 years. Key questions for us now are how Britain under Labour will approach the security partnership with Australia and whether London will remain committed to investing defence resources in the Indo-Pacific.

The report published by ASPI today, Full Tilt: the UK’s defence role in the Pacific, provides vital context for addressing these questions. In this series of articles, originally published in ASPI’s The Strategist this year, ASPI authors review the historical underpinnings and future course of Britain’s strategic recoupling with Australia and this region, especially the Pacific Islands, from perspectives ranging from deterrence to climate resilience.

Britain’s relationship with the region did not feature prominently in the election campaign. But Labour reaffirmed its commitments to AUKUS, to raising overall defence spending to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product (without specifying a timeline or where the extra money would be spent) and to maintaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. Labour also recaptured the parliamentary seat in northwest England where AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines will be built, fending off a local Conservative campaign focused on the future of defence industry jobs.

In April, David Lammy, now Britain’s foreign secretary, put forward his case for ‘progressive realism’. Under this conceptual framework, Britain would pursue ‘ideals without delusions about what is achievable.’ Lammy reiterated that European security would be Labour’s priority. But he argued that realism dictated that Britain must also strengthen its engagement with the Indo-Pacific, because the region ‘will be fundamental to global prosperity and security in the decades ahead.’

Lammy later said that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would be upskilled with experts on China, artificial intelligence and other critical technologies. The Australian-born Catherine West, who is likely to be the junior foreign minister covering this region, has also advocated learning from Australia on China. Such enthusiasm tallies with the sanguine assessment of bilateral security relations provided by Stephen Smith, Australia’s high commissioner in London, speaking to the ASPI Defence Conference in June.

However, there are also some clouds on the horizon, including hints that British statecraft in the Pacific may not be adequately resourced.

Lammy has said that fiscal restraint demands lateral thinking about the role of embassies, with greater openness to co-location, giving the example of British representation to Pacific Island Forum nations. Lammy frames this in terms of extending diplomatic reach, which would be an opportunity for Australia to offer support. But Canberra must state loudly and clearly that any winnowing of Britain’s recently expanded diplomatic posts in the Pacific would destroy London’s credibility as a serious partner to the region.

If money is tight, Britain’s forward defence presence in the Indo-Pacific risks getting squeezed. The pledge to rotate one the Royal Navy’s seven Astute-class nuclear submarines through Western Australia from as early as 2027 should be paramount, as it’s integral to AUKUS. But sustaining the tempo of visits and joint exercises by aircraft carrier strike groups, littoral response groups and other military engagements is also vital.

This Labour government also needs to decide on replacements for the two offshore patrol vessels currently forward-deployed in the Indo-Pacific, HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, which are particularly important in the Pacific Islands. As ASPI’s Euan Graham has suggested, Australia could shape that decision by offering port facilities for two Royal Navy Type 31 or Type 32 frigates, defraying costs while supplementing capability gaps in the Royal Australian Navy. This could also reinforce interoperability with Indonesia, which will operate a variant of the Type 31.

Contributing to the ASPI Conference, Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy and UK resilience at Policy Exchange, a London-based think tank, stressed the need for early engagement with the new Labour government. Sadly, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will miss a prime opportunity by ducking out of the NATO summit in Washington this week. Let’s hope Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, who will stand in for Albanese, still gets the chance to bend Starmer’s ear. But outreach must extend deeper, mobilising Australia’s think tanks and experts to reach into UK Labour’s roots, including the large cohort of new MPs, many of whom have scant foreign or defence policy experience.

Building from the Full Tilt report, I offer some recommendations for how to strengthen the Australia-UK partnership and shape Britain’s approach to our region:
1. Britain’s new defence secretary, John Healey, should promptly and publicly reaffirm the UK’s commitment to a persistent forward defence presence in the Indo-Pacific, including Submarine Rotation Force – West.

2. Australia should support Lammy’s interest in establishing a new College of British Diplomacy, particularly to supplement expertise on China, economic security and countering coercion. ASPI’s work with the European hybrid centre of excellence in Helsinki provides a good model for cross-regional exchange.

3. Britain and Australia should initiate a dialogue between senior defence and foreign ministry officials about defence strategy and deterrence, modelled on the annual Australia–US strategic policy dialogue. Reflecting deepening Anglo-Australian military cooperation, the dialogue should include discussion of regional contingencies, including Taiwan, and both conventional and nuclear deterrence. This would be consistent with the US concept of integrated deterrence, which encourages Washington's allies to develop cross-bracing partnerships.

4. Britain should be regularly consulted about the shape and implementation of Australian Defence’s comprehensive workforce plan, which selectively allows non-nationals to join the Australian Defence Force, both from the pool of permanent residents and by streamlining the existing scheme for directly recruiting military specialists overseas. As the scheme expands, Australia could learn from the British armed forces’ experience in recruiting non-citizens overseas, including from Fiji, which is also expanding its defence ties to Britain. Engaging Britain would also support the military and industry workforce coordination required for AUKUS, helping to allay concerns about the poaching of talent.

5. Britain should consider establishing a consulate in Adelaide (as the UK high commissioner to Australia, Vicki Treadell, advocated on the ASPI podcast), where the Royal Australian Navy’s SSN-AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines and Hunter-class frigates, both based on British designs, will be built. The business case could plausibly meet Lammy’s threshold for funding physical diplomatic premises. Australia should also consider ways to extend its diplomatic reach in northwest England, providing a corresponding local presence where many of Britain’s defence industries, including its main submarine-construction facilities, are concentrated. There is no substitute for a visible and persistent presence on the ground when it comes to forging research and industrial networks.

Thankfully, recent British and Australian governments of every political stripe have woken up to the fact that even strong bilateral partnerships need constant nurturing and should not be taken for granted because of familiarity. With that in mind, let’s hope Starmer stops over in Australia when he attends the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Samoa in October. If Britain seeks to understand the world from every angle, it pays to spend time down under.


Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/will-labour-keep-britain-at-full-tilt-in-the-pacific/

[1] report: https://aspi.org.au/report/full-tilt-uks-defence-role-pacific-views-strategist

[2] put forward: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-kingdom/case-progressive-realism-david-lammy

[3] advocated: https://www.afr.com/world/europe/aukus-stronger-under-labour-next-uk-minister-for-australia-20240626-p5josh#:~:text=Keir%20Starmer

[4] integral: https://www.asa.gov.au/aukus/submarine-rotational-force-west

[5] tempo: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-royal-navy-vessels-arrive-in-chennai-on-landmark-visit

[6] suggested: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/how-to-plug-the-royal-australian-navys-looming-surface-capability-gap/

[7] work: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/countering-hydra

[8] modelled: https://www.state.gov/australia-u-s-strategic-policy-dialogue/

[9] including: https://research-portal.st-andrews.ac.uk/en/publications/uk-agency-on-the-issue-of-taiwan

[10] both: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/thinking-through-britains-forward-based-submarine-commitment-to-aukus/

[11] allows: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2024-06-04/australian-defence-force-opens-recruitment-non-australian-citizens

[12] experience: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-adf-should-recruit-in-png-and-heres-how-to-do-it/

[13] advocated: https://www.aspi.org.au/news/stop-world-why-auld-acquaintance-should-neer-be-forgot