Anglo-Australian Cooperation: Opportunities and pitfalls in the Indo-Pacific

As the United Kingdom (UK) increases its strategic and economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific, Australia should continue its advocacy for the UK to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and its further integration into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This will enhance regional stability. But Australia should not advocate for British support of regional security groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and its inclusion into military exercises such as Exercise Malabar, as these will inflame existing tensions and lead to a less stable and cooperative Indo-Pacific.

Under the ‘Global Britain’ strategy, the UK wants to deepen connections with countries in the Indo-Pacific, including by working through existing institutions, such as ASEAN and CPTPP, and through the projection of military power in the region.

Australia is a natural regional partner for the UK due to its geography, shared values, and shared cultural heritage as a former British colony. As the British gaze turns east, Canberra should look to deepen cooperation with the UK on regional issues.

This will benefit both countries in pursuing shared interests, including the promotion of free trade and multilateralism in the region as well as the tackling of global challenges, such as pandemics and climate change.

In pursuing these shared interests, the UK and Australia should seek to foster a more cohesive Indo-Pacific. Cooperation with China will be necessary for this endeavour.

China has substantial economic influence in the region, as it is the largest trading partner of, and second largest source of foreign direct investment to, ASEAN. It is also the biggest trading partner of Australia and New Zealand.

As strategic competition between the United States (US) and China in the Indo-Pacific has intensified, Washington has become increasingly paranoid about China’s apparent desires for “regional hegemony”. The Biden administration now views competition in the region as a Manichean struggle between opposing political systems, and views China as a threat to the “liberal order” more broadly.

However, Australia’s assistance to the UK, and the UK’s deepened engagement in the Indo-Pacific, need not and should not be framed as defending the “liberal order” in the region. Such framing would further divide the region down ideological lines by enforcing the notion that there is a “new Cold War” in Asia between democracies led by the US and a renewed Marxist-Leninist China.

Australia has played a vital role in the UK’s now near accession to the CPTPP. Australia has also helped the UK in its application to become an ASEAN dialogue member, which was formalised in August. Australia should further advocate for the UK’s inclusion into the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, the ASEAN Regional Forum and, of particular importance, the East Asia Summit. The UK should continue using diplomatic initiatives such as the UK-ASEAN Troika Dialogue and Indonesia-UK Partnership Forum to exert its influence in the region.

This approach will allow for Australia and the UK to better pursue their shared regional interests. Without the baggage associated with “liberal order” rhetoric, countries in the region will view the UK as a practical partner rather than a country trying to mould the regional architecture to suit a particular ideology. This way, the UK’s approach will be distinct from that of the US’, meaning that smaller Indo-Pacific nations that fear backlash from Beijing may be more receptive to the UK’s overtures.

For Australia, a more regionally-engaged UK will lead to stronger economic, diplomatic, and people-to-people ties. The UK’s potential contribution to regional stability and addressing common challenges will also benefit Australia.

However, Australia should refrain from advocating further British inclusion when it comes to existing military and intelligence cooperation. This is because Australia and the UK do not share the same regional security concerns. Importantly, the UK’s Russian ‘acute threat’ scarcely occupies the minds of Australian policymakers.

In practical terms, Australia should not advocate the addition of the UK to the QUAD grouping or Malabar naval exercises, an annual event between the US, India and Japan that Australia was invited to participate in for the first time last year. Such actions will seem unnecessarily provocative to Beijing — both the QUAD and the Malabar exercises are seen in Beijing as parts of the US-led effort to contain China.

Seeking further integration into the Indo-Pacific’s multilateral structure whilst omitting “liberal order” rhetoric from its approach puts the UK in the best position to foster regional stability and encourage cooperation. Australia can play a key role in the UK’s further integration, and can do so without framing it as a bolster to the “liberal order”. Most Indo-Pacific nations will be more receptive to this kind of diplomacy.

China is a crucial partner in the region’s future, and in tackling regional issues, cooperation with Beijing will be necessary. If Australia and the UK are to secure their interests in the Indo-Pacific, a stable and cooperative region is of paramount importance. The British are sailing East again. This time, let them bring peace.