Since the end of the Second World War, the two countries have been drifting apart.
However, Britain and Australia maintain a long-standing partnership in the realm of defence and security including being members of the Five Eyes and Five Power Defence Arrangements.
In 1901, following nearly two decades of negotiations, the six self-governing British colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia agreed to unite and became the Commonwealth of Australia. British and Australian forces had fought alongside each other in many conflicts long before the union of 1901. The wars in what would become the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in the 1880s and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 are examples of the Australian commitment to Britain during its early days as a continental nation.
Thirteen years after the union, in 1914, Australia would fight once again alongside the UK and Empire. The role of Britain’s Royal Navy in the maintenance of imperial security and commerce was seen in Australia as essential to its security and prosperity. The overlapping interests were many and would prompt the country to contribute with more than 400,000 enlisted personnel, of whom roughly 156,000 were wounded or taken prisoner, and 60,000 were killed during more than four years of conflict.
The First World War remains the costliest conflict in the country’s history. This involvement in the war is a symbol of Australia’s emergence as an international player and many aspects of the Australian nationhood and character that exist today have their origins in the Great War.
In 1919, the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughe signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of the nation, marking the first time Australia signed an international treaty. The impacts of the war can be seen in the creation of the Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in New Zealand and Australia planned to honour the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who served in the Gallipoli Campaign under British command.
In the Inter-war years, Australia had its representation at the League of Nations and had a developing Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Australian Army. However, only during the 1937 elections, the main political parties advocated for increased defence spending, in the face of Japanese and German expansionism. Once again, the Australian Government emphasised co-operation with Britain invoking the ‘policy of imperial defence’.
The keystone of the imperial policy in the region was the British naval base at Singapore alongside the Royal Navy. The ‘Singapore Strategy’ was Britain’s defence policy to deter aggression by the Empire of Japan by providing a capable naval base for a British fleet in the Far East, able of intercepting and defeating Japanese forces heading towards Australia or India. However, the garrison would need to hold on while the ‘main fleet’ would be making its long way from Home Waters to Singapore.
If necessary, British naval forces would relieve Singapore and proceed to recapture or aid Hong Kong. Finally, the Royal Navy would initiate a blocked of the Japanese home islands. According to British imperial strategists of the 1920s and 1930s, this scenario would force the Japanese to accept terms. The strategy lasted from 1919 – when Singapore was chosen as the site of this military installation – to 1942 when the fortress fell to the Japanese forces.
From 1939, when the Second World War broke out, until 1941, Britain was mainly involved in the European theatre against Germany and, after June 1940, Italy. When war between Britain and Japan was declared, fears were already rooted in the British and Australian governments that British Forces, especially the Royal Navy, were overstretched and could not fight Germany, Italy and Japan alone.
The Australian interwar governments based their defence strategy on the concept that they could rely on the Royal Navy and its worldwide military bases. As already mentioned, this thinking would only change in the late 1930s as the geopolitical scene in Europe was getting darker, and the British Government issued warnings that the fleet available might not be enough to counter Japan or prevent raids on the Australian mainland. As the years of 1941 and 1942 witnessed that the imperial strategy had not the resources in time to reinforce Malaya and Singapore – and soon the Australian continent would be within reach of Japanese forces -, the Dominion was rethinking its strategic orientation.
Gradually, the Australian Government was looking for one more partner that could aid its fight against the Japanese Empire. When the United States joined the war in December 1941, for Australia it was natural to realign itself more closely to the Americans. The Fall of Singapore in February 1942 only contributed to the idea that Britain was overstretched and Australia and New Zealand were exposed to Japan’s aspirations of empire in Asia and Oceania. Within this geopolitical context, the Australian Prime Minister John Curtin made a historic declaration on 27 December 1941: ‘Without inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’.
Nevertheless, the UK and Australia would fight and work side by side for the whole of the Second World War. Australian troops were deployed to the Middle East, Egypt, Singapore and other war theatres along with British and Commonwealth personnel. Relevant roles played by Australian forces were seen in the Mediterranean theatre, including the Siege of Tobruk, Operation Compass, the Greek campaign, the Battle of Crete, Operation Exporter (the Syria-Lebanon campaign of June-July 1941) and during the Western Desert Campaign; especially in the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Although Britain and Australia emerged victorious from the Second World War, the Anglo-Australian relations were de jure and de facto loosened during the conflict. Politically, the Westminster Act of 1931 passed the Australian Parliament in 1942 (retroactive to 3 September 1939) formally giving the country complete independence over legislative matters. Concerning defence and security policies, the old Imperial Strategy was replaced as Australia’s main defence policy by a military alliance with the United States in 1951.
The ANZUS Treaty – an acronym for Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty’ – was one of the series of collective security agreements formed by the United States in the first decade of the Cold War as a response to the Soviet threat. New Zealand was suspended in 1986 due to a nuclear-free zone policy covering its territorial waters. Since 1986, the Treaty works between Australia and New Zealand and, separately, Australia and the United States. In short, the treaty states that ‘the Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific’ and the members are committed to develop collective responses to resist attacks.
Britain also made movements that diminished its role in the Indo-Pacific region and, consequently its relevance to Australian defence policy. Following close co-operation with the Australian Government on the issue of nuclear tests for the British ‘High Explosive Research’ programme and the hydrogen bombs between 1952 and 1963, Britain would disengage from the region. The UK’s strategic realignment during the 1960s and 1970s, when the British Government decided to withdraw most of its presence from ‘East of Suez’ and join the European Economic Community contributed to further decrease bilateral relations.
However, defence co-operation between the two countries never completely ceased and are gaining a new interest in both London and Canberra. Britain and Australia are partners through the Five Eyes (the world’s most complex intelligence alliance, also including New Zealand, Canada and the United States) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (Britain’s long-lasting defence commitment with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia). Beyond the realm of Defence and Security co-operation, the UK and Australia have a series of agreements covering Nuclear Co-operation and Technology, Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, Health Care and International Taxes. This wide range of accords displays that the two countries have been looking for new ways of co-operation.
Moreover, the British and Australian governments share similar interests and perspective on international matters and relatively close political links. It is worth noting that Australia and Britain are Commonwealth members and constitutional parliamentary monarchies sharing the Head of State and the last remaining possibilities of the British Parliament to legislate over Australia ended only with the Australia Act in 1986. The Australian High Commission in Australia House London is the oldest Australian diplomatic mission and the longest continuously occupied foreign mission in the British capital.
According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the UK traditionally holds the position as Australia’s second biggest foreign investor, only behind the United States and considerably ahead its competitors such as Belgium, Japan, China and Germany. Britain also figures the second largest foreign destination for Australian investments. In 2015-16, the UK was the fifth largest ‘two-way’ trading partner of Australia, worth roughly 28 billion Australian dollars (AU$), only behind China (with AU$174 billion), Japan (AU$68 billion), the United States (AU$66 billion) and South Korea (AU$39 billion).
In 2013, the Anglo-Australian relations received a new stimulus through a new defence and security agreement. As stated by the British Government, the Australia-UK Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty was elaborated as a way to formalise ‘the various elements of existing military/defence co-operation between the UK and Australia’ and has the framework for ‘doing more’. The aim was to drive forward closer co-operation on the defence and security field, enabling the British and Australian forces to be ‘more interoperable and maximising capabilities’. Notably, this agreement was the first comprehensive defence co-operation framework between the UK and Australia.
Subsequently, Britain would focus on the defence-industrial dimension of its partnership with Australia. In 2017, the two countries organised a ministerial-level ‘Defence Industry and Capability Dialogue’. When Canberra selected BAE System’s bid to build in Australia, a modified version of Type 26 Global Combat Ship (City-class frigate) for the RAN the defence-industrial co-operation received a substantial stimulus not seen in years. The successful bid by a British company to build the next generation of Australian frigates (named Hunter-class) displays how the British military equipment is highly regarded by the Australian forces. The Royal Australian Navy had designs based on British vessels or built by British companies during most part of its history; one of the most recent acquisition was the RFA Largs Bay sold to Australia in 2011.
According to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper, the relationship with Britain ‘is based on deep historical and cultural ties, which have been reinforced over time’, the Paper highlights the joint fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan as recent examples of Anglo-Australian partnership. The British expeditionary capability is also noted in the 2016 White Paper: ‘The United Kingdom has global military reach and the capacity to help respond to global security challenges’. Britain could assist with global issues that are regarded as relevant to the Australian foreign and defence policies.
Furthermore, amongst the European partners of the country, the UK is the most relevant economically. This relevance was stated when the Australian International Business Survey 2015 listed Britain in the top five markets for businesses, declaring it a ‘key target market’ only behind the United States, China and Indonesia. The economic relations between the UK and Australia are significant and a free-trade agreement has strong support in both countries, especially by supporters of greater political proximity amongst the ‘CANZUK nations’, which includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
Therefore, the Anglo-Australian relations have a significant potential to become stronger than it has been since the end of the Cold War. Although the 1960s and 1970s witnessed Britain and Australia drifting apart, the two nations never severed ties completely. The broad scope of defence and security co-operation with Australia is one of Britain’s most valued partnerships. While the UK is looking once again to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific area, Australia is also looking and expecting that the British will be present in the region in the near future.
It is not a question of ‘imperial nostalgia’. It is a question of finding new ways of strengthening the long-standing Anglo-Australian relations in the increasingly challenging and dangerous world of the 21st century.