Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.
The landmark security partnership recently announced by Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States reflects the new geopolitics of great power competition, prompted by the rise of China.
The new alliance, dubbed “AUKUS”, will see deeper integration of security and defence-related science, technology, industrial bases and supply chains, ranging from artificial intelligence to cybersecurity and quantum computing.
The first initiative will be a collaboration on future nuclear-powered submarines, providing the Australian fleet with the US and UK technology for the first time. Canberra’s mounting concern at China’s growing naval capacities encouraged it to cancel an order for French diesel-electric submarines, prompting fury in Paris, and seek the higher spec US and UK nuclear-powered technology instead.
The new trilateral alliance is the latest pillar in US-led efforts to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and balance China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the region. The US President has highlighted that this new phase of security cooperation will take place alongside a network of other relationships in the Indo-Pacific, such as the Quad, comprised of the US, Australia, India and Japan, whose leaders will meet in-person for the first time in Washington tomorrow.
New polling commissioned by Policy Exchange illustrates that the British public strongly welcomes a continuing US leadership role supported by allies. 54 per cent of Britons believe that when the US has strong cooperation from allies like the UK, the UK is more safe, as opposed to just eight per cent who believed it was less safe.
It is notable that Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, was quick to welcome the AUKUS announcement. Predictably, China has responded negatively to AUKUS, criticising its “cold-war mentality” and describing it as “extremely irresponsible”.
Ultimately, security is only one dimension of the changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. Chinese growth has been central to Asia’s rising global economic importance.
But China has also sought to use economic levers to exercise its power in the region. Following Canberra’s public calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Australia has had to weather formal and informal Chinese trade restrictions on several of its export industries.
It may or may not have been a coincidence but, the day after AUKUS was announced, China formally applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – the most advanced trade agreement in the region.
The forerunner to the 11-member CPTPP, known simply as the TPP, was not originally conceived as a grouping of geopolitical importance. However, when the US became involved and took a leading role in developing it, the Obama Administration was keen to highlight the strategic dimension. “With the TPP, we can rewrite the rules of trade to benefit America’s middle class. Because if we don’t, competitors who don’t share our values, like China, will step in to fill that void,” a White House factsheet said.
Ultimately, President Trump pulled the US out of the deal and it is Japan, as its largest economy, that has taken an increasingly important role within the CPTPP, including encouraging the UK to join it.
China’s application is unlikely to progress for the foreseeable future, since it will struggle to demonstrate adherence to some of the key elements of the deal, particularly the disciplines on state-owned enterprises, intellectual property, the free flow of data and labour standards.
Moreover, accession requires the unanimous approval of the existing members, including Australia and Japan, which would need some convincing given the current political climate. However, China’s application may be designed to throw a cat amongst the pigeons, forcing the wider CPTPP membership to debate the pact’s geopolitical role in relation to Beijing.
The UK is ahead of China in the queue to join the CPTPP, after all the existing members recently agreed to commence the formal accession process. If the UK’s membership bid is successful, it could work with others to facilitate US reengagement with the pact.
Biden’s team has suggested that trade agreements (not simply with the UK) are not a short-term US priority. However, China’s application might act as the catalyst for a reassessment of the CPTPP in Washington, which would greatly increase the economic and strategic benefits of membership to the UK.
Taken together, AUKUS and the UK’s CPTPP membership bid provide long-term substance to the UK’s “Indo-Pacific” tilt outlined in the Integrated Review. Policy Exchange’s Indo-Pacific Commission, which presaged the tilt, stressed the need for a mutually reinforcing “twin-track” UK approach. One focused on trade, economics and technology issues, and another on security. Both aspects of Global Britain are now very much in action in the region.
Meanwhile, French anger at the loss of a lucrative submarine contract has been compounded by its exclusion from a new strategic alliance. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Paris sees further evidence of the need for European “strategic autonomy” to reduce dependence on Washington. However, the same formidable hurdles to realising this ambition remain.
AUKUS was announced on the eve of the publication of EU’s own Indo-Pacific strategy and caught Brussels somewhat on the hop. Interestingly, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, was in London in the days immediately after the AUKUS announcement.
Rutte was reportedly laying the ground to invite the UK to take part in discussions about greater European security cooperation. Whether or not the current Government is open to exploring such an offer, the overture demonstrates that many smaller and Atlanticist EU member states are wary of a greater European role in defence and security, if no role can be found for the UK.
Ultimately, the UK might have entered the AUKUS were it still a member of the EU. But one of the major question marks against Brexit was whether it would see the UK lose its influence over global affairs as an independent nation state.
Recent events demonstrate that economic and security interests are becoming increasingly intertwined and adaptable alliances are becoming increasingly important. A flexible and nimble Global Britain has much to offer in such a world.