LONDON — The U.K. and Australia are teaming up to tackle economic “coercion” by a small number of countries including China.
Top ministers from both governments announced Thursday that their officials will start a new “economic security dialogue” to tackle growing challenges in the Indo-Pacific, keep global supply chains diverse and address the risk of economic “coercion” by hostile nations.
The move is part of the West’s response to pressure applied by Beijing to prominent overseas companies or sectors in a bid to prevent them from making public statements on sensitive issues or to gain their support for China’s policies.
The announcement came at the end of a two-day visit to London by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles and its Foreign Minister Penny Wong. The pair met their British counterparts Ben Wallace and James Cleverly — a format known as “Aukmin.”
“It is important that we recognize that, sadly, the rules-based order is under threat like never before, human rights are being threatened by a range of characters around the world and people are testing the sovereignty of nation states in a way that should worry us all,” Wallace told a press conference in Portsmouth, south England.
In a joint statement issued Thursday, the four ministers stressed their “strong opposition to any coercion or destabilizing actions in the South China Sea,” where China is increasing its military presence.
Amid heightened tensions between China and Taiwan, the U.K. and Australian ministers highlighted the importance of “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait, a critical waterway for global supply chains, and their shared opposition to “unilateral changes to the status quo.”
Britain and Australia are close defense partners, and members of the three-way AUKUS pact with the U.S. since September 2021 aimed at providing nuclear-powered submarines and other cutting-edge defense equipment to Australia. Canberra is expected to decide whether those subs will be built by the U.S., the U.K. or a combination of both early in the spring.
Marles told the press conference the AUKUS submarine plan was “a huge moment” in Australia’s history.
“This will change Australia’s international personality, it will dramatically build our capability, and with that, our sovereignty,” he said.
The U.K. and Australia will also carry out a comprehensive refresh of their 2013 bilateral Defense and Security Cooperation Treaty.
Two British warships are permanently stationed in the Pacific, “and there will be more of that to come,” Wallace said.
Cleverly also responded to calls by Wong for Britain to acknowledge its “uncomfortable” colonial past as it engages in a so-called “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific.
Cleverly said Britain has a duty to show its relationship with former colonies such as Australia is a “partnership of equals.”
“I think it is incumbent upon the U.K., in our dealings with Australia or any other country with which we were once a colonial power, to recognize that we need to demonstrate that this is a modern partnership, a partnership of equals — different but equal, geographically separated but emotionally and historically bound,” Cleverly said.
Wong had evoked her father’s Hakka and Cantonese Chinese background in her Tuesday address, recalling how many people including her own grandmother had worked as “domestic servants for British colonialists.” She warned the U.K. won’t be able to build strong ties with the region if remained “sheltered in narrower versions” of its history.
Cleverly insisted there was “no tension, no awkwardness” in his first face-to-face bilateral meeting with Wong, and stressed that the visit had “reinforced what is a very long-standing, very intimate bilateral relationship which is embedded in so much shared history.”
“You cannot eradicate or erase your history — so you need to be conscious of it,” Cleverly said.
Sophia Gaston, head of foreign policy and U.K. resilience at the Policy Exchange think tank, said Britain still has “much to learn” from Australia’s experience in its own neighborhood.
“The capacity to interrogate our history is a key strength of modern democracies such as ours, and should be embraced frankly and fearlessly,” she said.
“Far from engaging in a project of colonialist nostalgia, as some have interpreted the ‘tilt’, Britain’s recent engagement in the region has shown sensitivity and cultural understanding, with an emphasis on being a constructive and committed partner.”