Freshly returned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is preparing for the biggest shake up in British foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, as the UK stares down an increasingly resurgent Russia and global alliance responsibilities that could bring it into conflict in the Indo-Pacific, with poignant points for Australia.
Following a resounding electoral defeat and the ensuing political certainty established under the leadership of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson the UK has turned its attentions to the rapidly developing multi-polar world order.
This radical approach echoes comments made by former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson earlier in the year who promised a "major departure and reorientation" and the first major shift in UK defence policy for the first time since the introduction of the 'east of Suez' doctrine in the 1960s.
At the time, Mr Williamson described the post-Brexit era as "our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play."
Mr Williamson said that this shift would see the UK become a 'true global player' following Brexit, stepping into a leadership role in an increasingly troubled world.
Expanding on this, then-secretary Williamson said there would be a specific focus on enhancing the strategic relationships between the UK and key Commonwealth partners around the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean and nations across Africa.
This renewed focus on traditionally British areas of influence and strategic responsibility, specifically in the Caribbean, and more importantly for Australia's economic and strategic stability Indo-Pacific Asia, aims to secure the UK's national interests.
These comments were echoed by Prime Minister Johnson following his appointment in late-July when he declared: "Today, at this pivotal moment in our history, we again have to reconcile two noble sets of instincts between the deep desire for friendship and free trade and mutual support and security and defence between Britain and our European partners and the simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt, for democratic self-government in this country."
Return of a truly global Britain
Part of the UK's strategic 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.
Then-secretary Williamson expanded on what this could look like, proposing Singapore or Brunei as potential bases for UK forces in the Indo-Pacific region, enabling greater integration with regional partners: "If we have economic interests there, we should have a military interest there."
"The UK already has a world-leading array of capabilities. We will make the most effective use of them. Our armed forces have led the way for global Britain, tackling our adversaries abroad to protect our security at home and nurturing enduring relationships with our allies and partners," Williamson said earlier this year.
Countering foreign influence and strengthening the Five Eyes
A key focus for the Prime Minister is countering foreign influence, including 'grey zone' tactics and political warfare, methods increasingly favoured by totalitarian regimes in Russia and China – with asymmetric threats like violent extremism also figuring strongly in the proposed holistic national security response.
PM Johnson's proposed response would incorporate the combined efforts of the British Armed Forces, foreign and domestic intelligence services, counter terrorism and law enforcement agencies to respond in an era of great power competition.
"It will also develop global Britain's foreign policy; with a focus on our alliances and diplomacy, trends in shifts of power and wealth, and how the UK can best use our international development resource," the Queen's Speech document states.
The Queen's Speech – written by the government but read out by Queen Elizabeth II in the House of Lords – rattled through several dozen bills that the government plans to pass in the coming year.
Briefing notes reveal that strengthening the Five Eyes relationship is a key priority for the Prime Minister, stating, "The government is also considering like-minded international partners' legislation to see whether the UK would benefit from adopting something similar. This includes the US and Australia."
A key component of the Queen's Speech document released following the return of Parliament reinforced the Conservative government's resolute attempts to "make the UK a harder environment for adversaries to operate in".
Singing from the same song sheet
The efforts identified by the British Prime Minister are echoed Australia's Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, who articulated a growing need for closer collaboration between Australia and the UK.
"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," Minister Reynolds said earlier in the year.
"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.
These 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."
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.