Ben Roback: AUKUS shows that delivering ‘global Britain’ creates losers as well as winners

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

It has been a busy month for geopolitical analysts. Rarely does the world slow down, but a sluggish summer has turned into a busy autumn.

Joe Biden abandoned his globalist heritage and pulled the United States out of Afghanistan, taking the western coalition with him by default. Kabul fell and a once nascent democracy is now run by a terrorist organisation that diversity groups have been surprised to learn is clamping down on women’s rights.

The announcement of AUKUS – Australia, UK, USA – pulled the rug from the Five Eyes network and questioned the relevance of Canada and New Zealand, although Auckland frequently gives Beijing the benefit of the doubt to the frustration of the other four Eyes. France reacted with unprecedented fury, but in a bruising re-election campaign it was perhaps not surprising to see Emmanuel Macron lash out.

Energy politics has created a new frontier for international diplomacy, as ministers in Western Europe rush to warn their citizens that the lights won’t be going out any time soon. Raging wholesale gas prices have once again reminded continental Europe that hard politics often begins first with raw materials and natural power.

“Global Britain” creates winners and losers

At the United Nations, all of these factors are coming together. It is a good week to be Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan. From Downing Street’s perspective, it is a fresh chance to plant the Union Jack on the world stage and prove that “Global Britain” is more than just a strapline.

Johnson and Biden met yesterday in the White House, where the expected back-slapping bonhomie was missing owing to the Biden administration’s ongoing insistence on mask wearing.

There was plenty for the two men to discuss, chiefly the AUKUS trilateral, a fledgling US-UK FTA, Covid-19, and COP26. Although AUKUS featured only briefly in Downing Street’s published remarks, the newly minted partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States loomed large over the meeting.

It followed last week’s announcement in the East Room of the White House, where the President and Prime Ministers Johnson and Morrison announced the creation of a new trilateral grouping, “AUKUS”. It lacked the zip or panache of a “G7” or “Five Eyes”. Presumably “Bojo, ScoMo & Joe” was vetoed. The announcement proved the joint opportunity and challenge ahead for “Global Britain” – picking winners (in this case Australia and the United States) which results in losers (France).

“AUKUS: a partnership where our technology, our scientists, our industry, our defense forces are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all”, Morrison described. In the first instance, a signed agreement that would deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia.

The Australians “intend” to build these submarines in Adelaide, but from a British perspective there is a clear appeal given our own expertise in the field. After all, the Royal Navy launched our first nuclear submarine in the UK over 60 years ago, and the domestic manufacturing and skills base have never looked back since. Johnson’s remarks therefore turned quickly turned to the hundreds of highly skilled jobs that could be created across the UK.

From an international perspective, the three leaders were guarded about the rationale behind AUKUS. The “Indo-Pacific” was mentioned a dozen times in the shared remarks. China? Not once. But when world leaders talk about “threats in the Indo-Pacific region”, they mean Beijing’s expansionist tendencies.

China’s growing defence capability has caused grave concern in democratic capitals for decades. The 2020 Department of Defense’s China Military Report describes PRC as having the largest navy in the world. It has more ships than the United States, is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage, and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes.

AUKUS proved that geography matters in international politics. The UK has the domestic expertise to help provide the naval capacity the Australians need given their nautical proximity to China and Beijing’s ‘freedom of navigation’ missions. The US retains a clear interest in supporting measures to push Beijing back. Europe was simply a geographic and therefore political afterthought.

Whilst it was a bad week for Macron, who recalled France’s ambassador the United States for the first time in 243 years, AUKUS is a telling reflection of where international priorities lie for the Biden administration. International trade is viewed through the prism of reshoring jobs back to the United States, whilst the major international priorities are climate change and combatting the rise of China.

If the President was taking his international obligations more seriously, he would speed up the excruciatingly sluggish pace at which the White House is nominating ambassadors to supposedly key posts. The US still has no confirmed ambassador in Paris or London, at NATO or at the EU. It is unlikely that an approved ambassador would have changed the course of AUKUS events, but with more informed ears on the ground, Washington might have been better prepared for the fallout.

The AUKUS announcement has shifted the geopolitical sands further, whilst the dust has still far from settled in Afghanistan. Biden was supposed to bring a sense of calm and normality back to international policy, but he has become wildly unpredictable. In this instance, Macron’s loss was Johnson and Morrison’s gain.

In London, the Prime Minister has shown that “Global Britain” and “Levelling Up” can be delivered hand in hand. But just as the motivation for AUKUS was geographic proximity and Australia’s concern about a noisy neighbour, there are dozens of issues at home which rely on cooperation between the UK and France. The small boats carrying illegal immigrants from French shores to Britain’s is the Home Office’s top priority and said to be an increasing imperative for Johnson. Any solution will require increased collaboration between the UK and France just at the time when Paris is apoplectic with London.

Global Britain can be a guiding light for the United Kingdom, bold and brave outside of the EU, but the challenge becomes how to manage the winners and losers it creates.

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