The announcement of a new trilateral security alliance between the UK, Australia and the US on September 15, 2021 took many observers by surprise. This was not just about what the grouping involved said they intended to do, but also for who they were. The formal statement by the White House declared that “For more than 70 years, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have worked together, along with other important allies and partners, to protect our shared values and promote security and prosperity.”1 But why precisely was this particular grouping chosen, in view of the very many other possibilities, and why were ”other important allies and partners”—from Japan, France, New Zealand, to other partners in the Asian region that may have made more strategic sense in view of their already extant capacity and commitments in the region—not included in the mix? In particular, the UK’s inclusion, with its very limited military capability in the Asia Pacific, beyond being a broad ally of the US and Australia, has little it can bring to this grouping apart from moral support. But that sort of support is available in plenty of other places. What precisely was it doing in this new security deal?
To stress just how different Britain’s situation is compared to Australia’s, we need to focus on the particular seriousness of the latter’s “China challenge” compared to the UK’s. In his recent book on China’s Foreign Ministry, China’s Civilian Army, journalist Peter Martin dwells on the visit by then Chinese Politburo member and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu to Australia in 2017. By accident, rather than design, this marked the start of a steep decline in bilateral relations, and is seen as a moment when China showed an intention to demand much more from Australia in return for its huge economic imprint there. In a statement highly loaded with meaning, Meng reportedly stated to a politician during that visit: “it would be a shame if Chinese Government representatives had to tell the Chinese community in Australia that Labor did not support the relationship between Australia and China.”2For a government that had espoused a doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of others since the mid-1950s, this was in blatant contradiction. A high-level Chinese official was saying, unambiguously, that China could, and would, use its leverage in another country’s domestic affairs if it saw fit. This was a new development.
Since then, far more dramatically than is the case for the UK, where the long history of arguing with China over Hong Kong meant there were never high expectations, for Canberra and Beijing things have gone from bad to worse. Far from obediently complying with China’s fiat, Australia has given a robust pushback. A law to prevent claimed foreign interference to Australian politics was passed a year later. This was widely seen as being directed at China. In 2020, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia raised particular ire from Beijing when it proposed a World Health Organisation inquiry into the origins of the disease. This focussed on China’s role, and the circumstances in the central city of Wuhan at the end of 2019 when the problem first appeared, and local officials seemed to take no immediate action. China was irritated at this request, even though it complied in part with a subsequent enquiry, with multiple conditions attached.
Beijing’s fury at Australia has continued unabated since then. In November 2020, its ambassador in Canberra issued a list of 14 grievances, from complaining about the state of Victoria pulling out of a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deal it had signed a few years before, to offering sanctuary to figures regarded as political threats in China.3 Australia’s response at each stage was equally sharp. It culminated in Eric Abetz, a liberal senator from Tasmania, accusing people of Chinese heritage appearing before one committee in mid-2021 of being disloyal to Australian values if they did not overtly condemn the Communist Party of China and disown it. Even for the hardest of hardliners in the Morrison government, this was a step too far, and the temperature was dialled down, with the prime minister briefly using a more amelioratory tone towards China.
The big difference with the UK, however, is the huge role that trade plays in the Australia-China relationship. For sure, China has grown more important as an import and export partner, and investor, for Britain. But for Australia, over the last decade, it has become the central relationship, overshadowing everything else. It is here that the recent tensions have had visible impact. While iron ore and meat exports to China have continued well, Australian products in other sectors have fallen through the floor. Grain, wine, and other food products have seen their markets simply vanish as Chinese look for products elsewhere. As South Korea discovered when it agreed to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system with the US in 2016, China’s wrath can be quick to manifest itself in economic areas. The case of Australia proves that its largest trading partner is capable, and willing, to use economic instruments that flow from the size and importance of its domestic market on others when they displease it. For the Australian economy that is a far more serious issue than it is for Britain.
In this context, for Australia to seek deeper relations with its established allies, in particular with the US, makes sense. This is not solely a response to the kinds of challenges a more powerful and assertive Beijing offers. It is also a sign of Canberra recommitting to the US after a period of turbulence when former President Donald Trump seemed to question the basic security guarantees Washington had made over the previous few decades in the region. To insure against any future uncertainty, having a pact in place like AUKUS at least commits US administrations in the future to take some heed of the importance of their Asian Pacific ally. For the US, having the massive geography of Australia in the region provides an essential final line of defence against what are perceived as China’s regional assertiveness.
But we have to return to the question of why the UK is in this mix. Britain may well have two new partially functional aircraft carriers and seems keen to raise itself up post-Brexit as a global player. But it is decades since it had the kind of reach and capacity to pretend it has any real unilateral clout in the region. A small garrison in Brunei is all that remains of a colonial infrastructure from the first part of the last century that made it, briefly, a truly Asian power. With that long gone, the question is more about whether its newfound interest is down to misplaced nostalgia, or the urgent need to create a new set of alliances, in particular to Washington, to whom, under Boris Johnson, Britain seems increasingly keen to show loyalty.
As with so many other areas in UK domestic and foreign policy, departure from the European Union has clearly played a role in this. Much of the policy of Johnson since the moment in early 2020 when leaving the Union became a reality has been to try strenuously to demonstrate that the UK can function as well, if not better, in a world where the EU is not as significant for it as when Britain was a member. The political and economic costs that his government are willing to pay for this have proven to be high—and will certainly go higher. COVID-19 has masked the economic impact of exiting the EU. But even though some bilateral trade deals have been signed, one of the most sought after, that with the US, was put on hold soon after Joe Biden was elected president. Reviving relations with the Commonwealth was one of the dreams of those who supported Brexit, however, and so the trade agreement with Australia finalised in mid-2021 was taken as positive news, despite the miniscule amount of trade the two do compared to other European partners.
This underlines a very obvious fact: despite Brexit, Europe remains crucially important for Britain. In that context, it is hard to see beyond symbolism what else Britain is up to, in being part of AUKUS, or sending its warships around the region. Its fleet in 2020 consisted of 77 operational ships—significant in European terms, but barely a quarter of what the US or China has at its disposal.4 Brexit has created security tensions far more urgent and closer to home too, from an escalating refugee crisis across the English Chanel creating tensions with France to the continuing serious arguments over the confused status of the Northern Ireland border. The AUKUS deal hardly helped this situation, angering the French who had been contracted to supply the submarines to the Australians before then. President Macron’s government was so furious at what it saw as a betrayal that it withdrew, for the first time ever, its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra, albeit temporarily. Far from sailing through the waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific in regal splendor, in 2021 the British navy is likelier to be called on to try to protect UK waters from French fishing vessels. Britain might well be global, but it remains, and will always be a part of Europe, and relations with neighboring Europeans will be its priority. Asia is a distraction in much of this.
To add to the complexity, Britain’s relations with China are hardly in better shape than those between China and Australia or the US. But like Tolstoy’s famous saying—all unhappy families being unhappy for different reasons—in the case of Beijing and London the causes of current discontent start from different historic roots and are shaped by different forces. For a start, the levels of trade with China while increasing are nowhere near as significant for the British economy as they are in the case of Australia. So, the option of China using the same kinds of economic pressures is less potentially dramatic. On top of this is the simple factor of history and expectations. Britain, over the issue of Hong Kong, has been irritating and arguing with China for almost two centuries. This is probably why the Chinese government did not go into complete meltdown over the banning of their ambassador Zheng Zeguang from parliament in September due to sanctions placed on Britain parliamentarians earlier in the year for their criticisms of the country’s human rights record.5 As an Australian official commented to me soon after this happened, had Canberra attempted that, the response from Beijing would have been very much fiercer. As it was, the Chinese government simply condemned it as yet more unreasonable behavior from a partner it had long since resigned itself to expecting this from.
As with the case of Australia, over 2020 and into 2021, the UK and China’s relations have grown progressively worse. But while the experience of being in the doghouse with the Chinese might be new for Australia, for the UK, alas, it is hardly novel. In the years leading up to the reversion of Hong Kong, Britain was usually uniquely exposed to Chinese fury, as when negotiations hit snags or turbulence. Now, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople in Beijing can treat Britain as just part of a large queue. It is more likely that there is wry bemusement in Beijing at what sort of misplaced sense of loyalty a country like Britain must have that it puts its name to pacts and security agreements such as AUKUS where there is little real evidence of it getting anything in return apart from a pat on the head. At most, the UK could be a supplier for some of the equipment for the nuclear submarines promised under the deal. But they are unlikely to be delivered for another two decades—if ever. For China, a country averse to getting saddled with any pacts or alliances that bind its hands, this must seem like perverse behavior, more likely to make it look down on rather than respect the new Global Britain it hears British politicians speak so often about.
Britain’s relationship with China, because of its history, is a very atypical one. This is not just in comparison to Sino-Australian or Sino-American links. Even in the EU years for the UK when so much trade and investment policy towards China was run via Brussels, and a lot of human rights and political decisions made as part of that framework, the UK was frequently the odd one out amongst its European partners. Either it was taking flack for Hong Kong, or, after 1997, trying to balance its commitments to the Union while being a faithful ally of the US. Because of this unique position, throughout this period, Britain was forever speaking in two separate languages, standing on the moral high ground as it condemned what it saw as human rights abuses by funnelling most of this through the convenient front Brussels provided, while at the same time energetically trying to pursue trade deals and improve its investments coming from this new partner in the Far East. All of that culminated in the now much derided “Golden Age” of Sino-British relations, when Xi Jinping undertook his state visit to the UK in 2015. At that time, renminbi trading through London, rising levels of Chinese direct investment, and large numbers of Chinese students all portended a brave new world of enhanced engagement and good opportunities.
In the much more vexed geopolitics of 2021, the UK’s almost schizophrenic attitude towards China, one that was once just about manageable because of its manipulation of more contentious issues via the EU and less scrutiny from the US and other partners, is exposed. Now it is not so easy to sit on the wall and practice some sort of strategic autonomy. One of the driving ambitions for the British with AUKUS is, therefore, to do something about this by displaying loyalty to Washington and trying to show the ways it has replaced the Union as the core factor in Britain’s foreign relations. The complaint pre-Brexit was that Britain needed to take back control and stop running things via Brussels. AUKUS and Britain’s China policy generally show that control, once regained, was almost immediately handed by London to Washington. The UK is not in AUKUS because of its links to Australia, nor really for its deep concerns about China (though that plays a role) but in order to preserve and deepen its links with the US.
As for Beijing, it may dismiss the AUKUS deal as a strange and largely symbolic collection, just cobbled together to serve as another means of trying to express the desire to contain its aspirations in its own region, even as it serves to achieve nothing much. Even so, it has to reflect on just how much energy is going in to pushing back against it, and how with entities like the Quad, and increasing talk of the Indo-Pacific, and other forms of collaboration aimed at boxing China in, this environment is becoming increasingly hostile to China’s interests. For a government that talks about common prosperity and win-win outcomes, that its pushy and often aggressively worded diplomacy is inspiring different countries into new kinds of agreements and alliances simply to counter its influence is not a positive outcome. Beijing has some reasons for feeling aggrieved at the levels of antagonism directed at it by the US, Australia, and the UK. But it also bears responsibility for causing these new alliances because of the worries that so may countries have about China’s intentions and its recent behavior.
1. “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” White House, September 15 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/09/15/joint-leaders-statement-on-aukus/
2. John Fitzgerald, “China influence: in defence of parliamentary sovereignty,” The Interpreter, April 19, 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/china-influence-defence-parliamentary-sovereignty
3. Jonathan Kearsley, Eryk Bagshaw, and Anthony Galloway, “‘If you make China the enemy China will be the enemy’: Beijing’s fresh threat to Australia,” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 18, 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/if-you-make-china-the-enemy-china-will-be-the-enemy-beijing-s-fresh-threat-to-australia-20201118-p56fqs.html
4. Ankur Kundu, “Britain’s Royal Navy is set to emerge as the most powerful Navy in Europe,” Fleetmon, November 27, 2020, https://www.fleetmon.com/maritime-news/2020/31781/britains-royal-navy-set-emerge-most-powerful-navy-/
5. James Landale, “China’s ambassador Zheng Zeguang banned from UK parliament,” BBC, September 14, 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-58556460
“AUKUS, Australia, and China”