Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

As China Rises, Britain and Australia Need Closer Security Ties

Drinking more shiraz isn’t enough to counter Beijing.

By , the chair of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Britain's Johnson and Australia's Morrison in London
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk in the garden of 10 Downing Street in London on June 15. DOMINIC LIPINSKI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

After Australia was hit with harsh Chinese trade tariffs on wine, one country stepped up: In Britain, we took one—or rather several—for the team, and imports of South Australia’s finest surged 30 percent. Britain is now the No. 1 destination for Australian wine.

That’s great for the wine drinkers among us, but a few extra glasses of shiraz won’t be enough for Britain to defend its interests and stand up for its values. With three geopolitical trends coming together, we need to plan a new future for British and Australian cooperation, as I’ve set out in a new paper for the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies.

After Australia was hit with harsh Chinese trade tariffs on wine, one country stepped up: In Britain, we took one—or rather several—for the team, and imports of South Australia’s finest surged 30 percent. Britain is now the No. 1 destination for Australian wine.

That’s great for the wine drinkers among us, but a few extra glasses of shiraz won’t be enough for Britain to defend its interests and stand up for its values. With three geopolitical trends coming together, we need to plan a new future for British and Australian cooperation, as I’ve set out in a new paper for the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies.

The first trend is China’s increasing militarization of the Indo-Pacific. Beijing’s territorial and jurisdictional disputes are wide-ranging, engaging countries from Japan to the Philippines. China’s behavior in the region has become increasingly coercive. It has picked fights, silenced critics of its human rights abuses, and expanded island-building across the South China Sea. A free and open Indo-Pacific is at risk.

The second trend looks far less bleak. Under President Joe Biden, the return of the United States to the international stage has been coupled with a renewed focus on bringing allies together. This is remarkably positive and should encourage Britain to recognize that we have strong democratic allies that are keen to be active defenders of our common values and security.

The third element of the changed global dynamic is COVID-19. The disruption unleashed by the pandemic has stress-tested our economies and created space to rethink and reassess. National security vulnerabilities in supply chains—from medical equipment to semiconductors—have exposed the principle of just-in-time production to be based as much on hope as on a contract, with hidden costs if the supplier is unreliable or subject to intervention by a hostile state. We now know that our openness to foreign investment has been another weakness that our strategic competitors have exploited.

Faced with a rising China intent on hegemony, Britain and Australia need to transform their cooperation and bring other partners with them.

Australia’s experience has made this clear for everyone to see. Chinese trade aggression toward Australia has given the latter’s friends around the world the warning we needed. Beijing applying trade leverage could become a trend if we leave ourselves exposed.

To reduce threats and increase resilience, we need to build our homes on more solid foundations—such as shared history and shared values. Few countries are closer than Britain and Australia. Supporting each other on trade is just the start.

We need to target our efforts to get the most from the British-Australian partnership—in defense, the economy, technology, and environmental security.

In defense, few allies share what Britain and Australia do: an interchangeability that goes from platforms to crew. I served in a British military unit in combat in Iraq. The commander was an Australian on a two-year attachment. He swapped his Australian “jelly bean” camouflage for U.K. desert combats, but otherwise he was what Australians are famous for—tough, dependable, and courageous. This partnership gives our countries a chance to go further.

With the Royal Navy’s lead aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, taking part in joint exercises with the navies of Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand to mark the 50th anniversary of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA)—one of the region’s most enduring security relationships—Britain has a chance to demonstrate that presence matters. Now we need to sustain and persist in that presence, not just sail on. We need to plan for the coming years—and intensify our engagement with new FPDA partners.

Japan could play a greater role in our security architecture. When then-Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono spoke to the China Research Group of British parliamentarians last year, he wanted to see Japanese F-35 fighter aircraft alongside Britain’s on the flight deck of a British aircraft carrier. We could go further and also plan for the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance to grow by bringing in Tokyo as the sixth ally.

To deepen those ties, the U.K. should also seek to forge new partnerships. Australia has facilitated Britain’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and its joining of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as a dialogue partner. Canberra can continue to boost London’s integration into Indo-Pacific strategic dialogues, fostering the multilateral networks that will be essential in a world where we must strengthen partnerships with both democracies and nondemocracies.

Democracies must work together in emerging technology to avoid the crisis over 5G telecommunications infrastructure that proved a warning to so many. We need to write international standards for emerging technologies that are compatible with our communities and ideas of rights and privacy.

Chinese trade aggression toward Australia has given the latter’s friends around the world the warning we needed.

Finally, there is climate change. We know the challenge the world faces, and while both countries could do more, Australia and Britain have seen carbon emissions drop since 2000, while China’s numbers are pointing in the opposite direction. We need to price in the cost of Beijing’s failure to act and finance the alternatives that will ensure our Pacific Island partners survive. It’s absurd that today’s top emitter is claiming to be the best partner to those states most at risk.

As the global center of gravity shifts toward the Indo-Pacific, and the values free people choose when they’re free to do so are challenged by autocracies in the region, it’s time to think again about the British-Australian alliance. We’re each other’s closest partners, each other’s greatest friends, and the greatest chance we each have to build partnerships that will protect us into the future.

Faced with a rising China that seems intent on hegemony, Britain and Australia need to demonstrate the commitment to transform their cooperation and bring others with them. Together, we can reassure allies, deter enemies, support innovation, and deepen trade.

We started with wine, but the British-Australian future is about so much more. I’ll drink another glass of shiraz to that.

Tom Tugendhat is a Conservative member of the British Parliament, where he chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. Twitter: @TomTugendhat

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