By Peter Jennings
The immediate significance of the recent AUKMIN gathering in Sydney (January 21, 2022) was that it took place while a Russian military assault on Ukraine is imminent. Given the threat from Moscow, no one would have been surprised had the UK foreign and defence secretaries delayed their visit.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne told the post-dialogue media conference she had observed an exponential and continued upward commitment of UK engagement in the Indo-Pacific. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said ‘we are facing global challenges from multiple aggressors’.
That’s the reality of our strategic times. The democracies are working more closely together because they must. Either we find ways to add strength through closer co-operation or else we lose ground to aggressive international behaviour from Russia and China.
The strategic outlook could hardly be more different today compared to the relatively more benign world of 2006, when AUKMIN was established. At that time UK and Australian officials were seized of a common view: they thought the bilateral agreement was a pointless waste of effort. Britain’s future, you see, was in Europe, and Australia was ‘Asian century’-bound.
Former foreign minister Gareth Evans summed up the mood. Writing in 2016 about former prime minister Tony Abbott’s affection for the Anglosphere, Evans claimed ‘the truth of the matter is that the UK has brought nothing of significance to the region’s defence since the fall of Singapore in 1942’. Closer Australia–UK co-operation was simply a ‘nostalgic’ hankering for the past, a ‘fantasy’ of ‘Anglosphere dreamers’, that no one would be interested in, least of all the US, which would focus on the ‘biggest game of all for the foreseeable future’, its competition for ‘global supremacy’ with China.
Evans was far from alone. In January 2011, I attended the third AUKMIN held at HMAS Watson naval base in Sydney. Kevin Rudd as foreign minister and Stephen Smith as defence minister, hardly Anglo-tragics, met their Conservative counterparts, William Hague and Liam Fox.
After a morning of productive talks, officials were told to write up a list of quite ambitious agreed outcomes for ministers to approve after lunch. A strange wrestle ensued with unhappy and jet-lagged Whitehall officials. Their mission was to ensure that nothing too substantial by way of future action was recorded.
We had all heard what the ministers wanted. But the British agenda was ‘curb your enthusiasm, let’s not get carried away here’. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was largely on board the Whitehall bus too. Evans’s Kool-Aid had been drunk deeply, we should stick to our Indo-Pacific knitting.
More than a decade later and it seems little has changed. Ticky Fullerton reported in The Australian on Thursday that Truss had to drive ‘the free-trade agreement with Australia, pushing back against entrenched Euro-centric views of Whitehall public servants’, when she was trade secretary last year.
Significant credit should go to British and Australian politicians of all political stripes for sticking with AUKMIN in the face of indifference from many officials.
Four important lessons come from the AUKMIN story.
First, the historic, linguistic and cultural connections that tie the UK and Australia do matter. Contrary to Payne’s article in The Australian on Thursday, this is not about basking in being ‘two of the most diverse nations on Earth’, it’s our commonalities that bring us together.
For all that is condescendingly decried (in Evans’s words) as a ‘passion for English country walks and pubs’, the truth is that historical closeness translates into effective defence and intelligence co-operation.
Second, Britain and Australia have interests that go beyond our immediate neighbourhoods. We are not small regional players but rather large states with global interests. We cannot be as small as the conventional thinking of some of our officials.
Third, rising aggressive totalitarianism in the form of China and Russia—and let’s add in North Korea and Iran—is the biggest strategic challenge of our age. It is pushing the consequential democracies together.
It is massively to Australia’s benefit that the UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands and others now define Indo-Pacific security as relevant to them. Hugh White dismisses these connections, saying they offer no guarantees of support in conflict: ‘We need to plan to fight alone,’ he maintains.
But we are not on the start line of the conflict today. The issue is what like-minded countries can do to avoid war. Thinking and acting alone is what China wants us to do because it encourages capitulation. Working together in ANZUS, AUKUS, AUKMIN, the Quad and other groupings is what Beijing dislikes because together the democracies are stronger.
A fourth AUKMIN lesson, nicely expressed by British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace on Friday, is that deep alliances can’t just be transactional, trading reciprocal favours. They are based on long-term trusted relationships working towards shared goals. These links take a long time to build.
To really work, alliances need practical outcomes, military engagement, things that really happen.
On this test the AUKMIN communique delivers a set of interesting outcomes, although perhaps none as startling as the AUKUS nuclear propulsion announcement of last September. (To be fair, those sorts of ‘deliverables’ are rare.)
Off the table is the idea of basing a Royal Navy Astute-class submarine at an Australian base, but the promise is for ‘greater rotations’ of British vessels into the region. The RN will deploy two offshore patrol vessels, HMS Spey and HMS Tamar, ‘re-establishing a persistent Indo-Pacific presence’ this year.
That’s a significant commitment. Australia should encourage the RN to make one of our naval bases its long-term centre for operations, treating this as a joint endeavour.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton stressed the ‘seamless’ progress in negotiations on nuclear propulsion and the wider technological agenda for joint work on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonic vehicles and underwater systems.
One can only hope AUKUS delivers. On submarines, going into Friday’s meeting, Truss pointed to the possibility of ‘collaborative development by the three AUKUS parties rather than a choice of Britain’s Astute class or America’s Virginia class’.
There is promise in that approach, which could produce a design common to all three navies. Ministers will be keenly aware of the risks and challenges posed by the nuclear propulsion plan for Australia. This is one heck of a project to land.
The AUKMIN partners signed agreements for a ‘cyber and critical technology partnership’ and for ‘clean, reliable and transparent infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific’. This points to a broadening of co-operation beyond traditional defence and intelligence roots.
In many ways, the competition for influence between the democracies and the dictatorships in the Indo-Pacific comes down to those countries looking for ‘clean, reliable and transparent’ co-operation and those who will settle for Beijing’s money, which is anything but clean.
How curious that, for decades, Canberra’s response to globalisation was to obsessively narrow our interests to a thin slice of Asia. Australia and Britain are stronger because of AUKMIN. Britain is again, and Australia is at last, thinking about our interests on a global scale. We have much to live up to.
Peter Jennings is the executive director of ASPI and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Defence Department.
A version of this article was published in the Weekend Australian.
The featured mage: Bianca De Marchi/Pool/AFP/Getty Images.
This article was published by ASPI on January 24, 2022.