Returning to our historically close partner| Tobias Poutsma
Growing military threats. Economic coercion. Unprecedented levels of international interference. Grey-Zone warfare. Needless to say, Australia is heading into an uncertain and dangerous era. As the recent 2020 Defence Strategic Update identifies, “Australia’s region, the Indo-Pacific, is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since World War II.” One look at the news in the past year, or a look at any International Relations journal will demonstrate the world is in the middle of a significant security shift, both in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
Using a conservative instinct of actual and thoughtful examination of the past, a clear and logical solution presents itself which would allow Australia to establish itself in the most optimal position for the upcoming decades of unpredictability, challenge and possible conflict. This logical solution is a much greater cooperation and partnership between Australia and the United Kingdom, one which would strengthen both nations, and make them more resilient and ready to deal with the most significant security challenges of the 2020s and onwards. This solution of course has worked successfully many times in the past, for a variety of conflicts and in many times of world tension, from both World Wars, the Boer war, and our joint fight against Communism in Malaya.
A much greater and intimate military partnership would allow Australia and the United Kingdom to deal with their respective regional adversaries with more confidence and success. In terms of the Australian context, the rapid rise of China’s military capability in the Indo-Pacific has surpassed ours long ago, and ostensibly will surpass that of the United States soon, who we have relied on in the past 30 years to be our main security provider in the Indo-Pacific. In the case of any potential conflict, the United States military would be tasked to provide support to other countries too, some of whom are geographically closer to our adversaries and at more risk, such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. We cannot rely solely on the United States for our survival, we must seek to improve our chances through means which are tried and tested through previous conflict and hardships.
What does a greater partnership look like and how does it actually, in real terms, increase our chances at success in a potential conflict, or standoff, with China? Firstly, considering the two main flashpoints that have developed, the South-China Sea and the disputed sovereignty of Taiwan, both these geographic environments are situated in an environment where naval forces are to have the biggest influence on the outcome of events. A combined naval fleet with both UK and Australian ships would be incredibly beneficial, especially in the event of conflict, where Australia’s Navy is struggling to keep up with the capability and quantity of the PLA Navy.
Both the UK Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy share a deep heritage together, have a similar structure, use similar procedures and have fought alongside each other many times, in both World Wars and modern operations. This deep commonality creates interoperability, a military jargon term for the ability for both forces to be able to cooperate seamlessly and complement each other’s capabilities. Importantly, with Australia having significant delays in new ship building, a bolstered number of deployable ships in the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future in a joint UK-Australia fleet would serve as a deterrent to potential conflict, and would be a critical boost, perhaps determining, to Australia’s defense in case of war.
This increased partnership extends to the Army and Airforce too, where Australia would benefit tremendously from increased troop and aircraft numbers that could be used for deterrence or actual conflict, especially from a similar highly trained force. Increasing the amount of joint military exercises that the UK and Australia do now, using shared assets and training in combating a larger military, will reap dividends in the future. A pooling of military and strategic resources, if the security environment of the Indo-Pacific continues to deteriorate, would also be beneficial, as the past decades of peacetime complacency has ensured that Australia and to some extent the UK too, has a minimal stockpile of useable fuel, munitions and consumables, all which are vital in the case of a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific. A move towards similar small arms and vehicle platforms in the medium-term future too would provide greatly beneficial.
A greater UK-Australia partnership extends into the economic realm too, with Australia suffering economic coercion at the behest of China, and the UK in economic uncertainty and downturn following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic, both nations must return to stable and trusted trade and economic and trade partnerships to ensure economic success and longevity. A return to a situation where Australia and the UK are close trade partners just makes sense; such a relationship in the past allowed both Australia and the UK to thrive in peacetime and such a relationship now might be needed to just survive in hardship. Owing to the historic intimacy of our two nations, such a trade or economic partnership is safe and not subject to what has caused our current prospective trade crisis: economic bullying and intimidation by countries such as China which will use trade as a weapon. Australia must secure and re-establish a reliable economic and trade relationship with our historically closest partner, the United Kingdom, in order to establish for ourselves the best position for the upcoming decades of turbulence.
While Australia is already close with the UK in terms of military alliances and defence technology sharing agreements, a closer partnership is needed to prepare for the upcoming decades. Any conflict, or even a drastic increase in tension and economic coercion in the Indo-Pacific has the real potential to overwhelm Australia and its current capabilities. With the United Kingdom being one of our closest allies, titular head of the Commonwealth, and the historical parental carer of Australia, it is only logical to increase and strengthen the interrelation and cooperation we already have, and to strengthen and return to a familiar coalition between the UK and Australia, one which is tried and tested to have worked through two world wars, and in defence of both the UK and Australia.