The relationship between Australia and the UK is the very definition of a 'special relationship' – Australia's first strategic benefactor has recently taken a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific to support the broader global 'rules based order' in the face of growing instability in the US and challenges from potential peer competitors in China and Russia.
This relationship has seen Australian and British forces fight side-by-side in virtually ever major conflict of the 20th century – beginning in the Middle East and southern Europe, through to combating the threats of communism during the early years of the Cold War. The Australia-UK relationship has also proved critical to the development of Australia's defence capability throughout the years, with key technologies and platforms operated by both nations forming a critical part of the Commonwealth's unified defence capability.
It is this foundation that has seen renewed focus for both the British and Australian governments as they seek to respond to the rising challenges of the new millennium, serving to bring the band back together. New Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has used a recent visit to the UK to reaffirm the special relationship between the two nations with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.
"The Australia-UK relationship is such an important one for cultural, government and defence reasons ... There is no question that we are currently seeing the biggest realignment of the strategic landscape since World War II," Minister Reynolds said.
This focus on the rapidly shifting geo-political, strategic and economic paradigm – particularly the increasingly unstable nature of the US – has prompted a major realignment for both nations, with the UK beginning to embrace its traditional role of 'great power' and Australia beginning to embark on a recapitalisation and modernisation program that will see a quantum leap in the nation's defence capabilities.
For the UK, this realignment towards 'great power' status has seen the former global power commit to a range of capability acquisitions and force structure developments, including:
- Recapitalisation and modernisation of the Royal Navy – including the acquisition of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ships and the planned development and acquisition of the Type 31e frigates to supplement the capability delivered by the Type 45 Daring Class guided missile destroyers and the Astute Class fast attack submarines.
- The restructuring of the British Army to focus power projection and rapid expeditionary capability as part of the Army 2020 plan – this plan is designed support concurrent deployments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Indo-Pacific.
- Modernisation of the Royal Air Force to include fifth-generation air combat capabilities in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the E-7A Wedgetail and upgrades for the Eurofighter Typhoon – while supporting increased airlift capabilities and a focus on the future, including the beginning of development on the sixth-generation Tempest air superiority fighter.
- A modernisation of the British nuclear deterrence force – with the planned construction of the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines.
For Australia, a nation increasingly dependent upon the enduring stability, prosperity and security of the Indo-Pacific, the resurgence of the UK and its renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific empowers the nation to more broadly and directly support the long-term rules based order of the region, something Minister Reynolds was vocal about.
"We are also seeing an explosion in new technologies that means that our world is increasingly unshackled from geography. All of that means that the international order in which we operate, and has delivered great benefits to Australia, is more important than ever. And the rules-based global order that came into being at the end of World War Two and has been built upon since, is now under pressure," Minister Reynolds articulated.
"We are seeing grey zone tactics being used to undermine the foundation of the current international rules-based system and, I would argue, of democracy itself. It is incumbent on all nations to work together to strengthen and adapt the global order and an international system that allows all nations to thrive, and to do so in peace. We need one that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. So that leads to the first question for us both – where do we start? As we look to that task of defining an international order in an evolving context, Australia is committed to working closely with traditional partners like the United Kingdom."
The rapidly deteriorating state of the contemporary geo-political and strategic environment, driven by a resurgent Russia and increasingly assertive China, combined with the rising threat of asymmetric threats, serve to challenge the capacity of both nations to support the continuation of the 'rules based order' without a commitment to deepening the bonds between the two nations and, more broadly, the Five Eyes network.
"Together, working with other trusted partners, particularly Canada, New Zealand and the United States, we can do much more to provide security for ourselves and stability for the world. And few countries can claim ties as close as those that Australia shares with the United Kingdom. When I visit the United Kingdom I am reminded in a very personal way of the values we share; and our shared commitment to meeting challenges," Minister Reynolds said.
"But the question we need to ask ourselves now is whether our close and longstanding partnership is up to the challenges that lie ahead – challenges that pose new risks for the integrity of the global order. It is worth reminding ourselves of just how profoundly some of these challenges are impacting the strategic environment and, in very direct ways, contesting our values.
"Our response to these challenges will test our ingenuity as well as our resolve in charting new directions for our partnership. Directions that better prepare us for the future – a future that has already arrived. Let me share some thoughts on five ways we might go about doing this together.
"Through closer engagement; capability co-operation; industry and innovation; defence co-operation; and a whole-of-government approach."
For both nations the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges and both state and non-state actors continue to directly impact the broader security of both Australia and the UK – this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.