International Opinion

Australia could join UK-led international alliance, abandoning Asia

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Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson in 2019 (image via YouTube)

The British Government seems intent on sustaining its international prominence through deepened links with its former colonies.

If not for the Ever Given’s fortuitous re-floating, the near week-long blockage of one of the world’s most critical shipping routes might legitimately have been dubbed the "second Suez crisis", the first iteration being the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt aimed at seizing the recently nationalised Canal. 

That campaign’s spectacular failure is often pointed to as an epochal moment, heralding the end of both Britain and France’s great power status. It was this increasing sense of international decline that at least partly fed into the British vote to leave the European Union in June 2016.

This too has come to be viewed in many quarters as something of a "Suez moment", sealing Britain’s further diminished status in the world. 

With the conclusion of a tortuous divorce process in December, even the many fervent detractors of Brexit acknowledge that Britain now has to find its way in an increasingly unstable international system, alienated from its closest and largest trading partner. For many on the right of British politics, the solution is a simple one: act like the UK still possesses an empire.

The core of this "Empire 2.0" would be Canada, Australia, New Zealand as well as the United Kingdom, or "CANZUK". At its most expansive, the CANZUK project envisions a kind of confederal superstate encompassing free movement, free trade and even deeper military and diplomatic coordination with the modern states most intensively settled by Britain.

The proposal has gained increasing traction, with the head of Canada’s Conservative Party adopting CANZUK as a policy objective. Former Australian Prime Minister and London native Tony Abbott has also given the movement his enthusiastic support.

Free movement, a reality until 1962, could be achieved by extending the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement between Australia and New Zealand to cover the UK and Canada as well. Apparently imminent free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand would also grant Britain a path to membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

With trade talks in the final stages, the idea has been breathlessly touted in the right-wing press as a bloc that would turn its constituent members into an instantaneous global superpower; the world’s largest political entity by area, third by economic weight and second by military strength.

Something resembling this was attempted as early as the late 19th Century. Rather than giving their subjects in Australasia, Africa and North America the same legal status as inhabitants of Britain itself, Westminster chose to devolve sovereignty to many of its colonies, making them "self-governing dominions".

The new states, including Australia, while politically independent, remained deeply entangled with Britain, economically, culturally, legally and militarily. 

It is of course, impossible to sell this project as a return to the imperial past so, instead, it is couched in terms of free trade and "the liberal international rules-based order".

The Johnson Government has increasingly talked of an "Indo-Pacific pivot", coinciding with escalating tensions between China and the U.S. In fact, it may be Sino-American antagonism, far more than economic necessity, may be what corrals the "Anglosphere" into an ever more cohesive bloc.

No doubt aware of this, CANZUK’s apostles have adopted a more militaristic tone, pitching such a deepened alliance as a means to keep the sea lanes open. The translation being policing them on the terms of the Anglo-American alliance.

The problem for the UK thus far is that none of its colonial offspring has had the same urgent need for this project.

Were it to be revived in the 21st Century, it would have to be a much more equal relationship than in centuries past. Canberra, Wellington and Ottawa may soon find themselves pooling international influence, feeding into the formation of British foreign policy and in turn being formed by it.

A more collective foreign policy would also give the UK an excuse to hold onto its veto and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which on its own, becomes increasingly hard to justify.

While this would mean a relative improvement in Australia’s international influence, it would also tie its policies ever closer to the UK, which itself has long since accepted its role as a junior partner to the United States.

Under such a deepened alliance, Australia may find that the foreign policy goals and quagmires of Washington and London will increasingly become hers by default.

Will Australia continue its gradual integration as an Asia-Pacific nation, or abandon it in line with policies formulated in London and Washington?

Recent history suggests that it might.

Samuel Geddes is a Melbourne-based journalist whose work has also appeared in the British and Italian media. He can be followed at @SamuelGeddes.

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