Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
On November 26, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the UK's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told the Sydney Morning Herald that he expected the UK and Australia to stand "shoulder to shoulder in standing up for democracy" against China. The Diplomat magazine said the remark demonstrated "deep solidarity with Australia as that country finds itself in China's crosshairs."
The question is: What exactly could the UK do to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Australia apart from political posturing? What Canberra needs at the moment is obviously more than vocal support from Brexit-quagmired and COVID-19 ravaged UK.
Following China's decision to impose heavy tariffs on Australian wines after finding evidence of dumping, Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said that this was "a devastating blow" to exporters. In a recent interview with the Global Times, Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China, also noted the importance of Australia's economic relationship with China - about 40 percent of Australian exports; around 10 percent of its GDP. "No one would expect these to go to zero."
Australia will find it hard to discover an alternative market to China. And it is out of the question that the UK can replace Chinese buyers. Can they really soak up the same level of Australian imports as the Chinese consumers? The math speaks otherwise. Europe itself, including the UK, has always been a major exporter of wines. There has no further market to guzzle down wines from Australia. Even if the UK wants to bring manufacturing back home, it won't need that much iron ore.
London's endorsement of Canberra's bark is weak. It provides no real assistance apart from making a diplomatic posture. Worse, it is not necessarily real spiritual support for Canberra. Rather, it is merely a move through which London tries to embody its major power status and independent diplomatic influence in the chaotic post-Brexist era.
Recently, the UK has been discussing whether to engage more in the Indo-Pacific. Earlier this month, a group of UK politicians issued a report for the right of center think tank Policy Exchange. The Guardian newspaper on November 22 noted that it urged the country to "make a major post-Brexit tilt toward the Indo-Pacific region, ploughing military, financial and diplomatic resources into building a major democratic counterweight to China's growing threat."
Such a proposal over the UK's Indo-Pacific policy illustrates the point that the country has already taken a side, or those politicians wish the country to take a clear-cut side in the rivalry between China and the US, according to Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, who spoke with the Global Times on Monday.
Voicing its solidarity with Australia certainly shows how the UK will be engaging the region in the future. Meanwhile, it magnifies London's slyness: encouraging Australia to keep confronting China, and stirring up more troubles in an attempt to gain advantages from the ever devolving situation. But in the end, it will still be Australia itself which suffers from the losses of such a confrontation.
The UK wants to play a role in the Indo-Pacific, yet its current capability does not support its ambition. When the country unveiled a £16.5 billion ($21.8 billion) budget boost for its armed forces, it attracted more queries than support. Where on earth will London get that money from?
Analysts noted that if the UK is serious about the budget, it will have to rob Peter to pay Paul. In others words, it will likely have to cut its foreign aid to realize its military agendas. Its desired strategy in the Indo-Pacific region will only face the same dilemma.
The UK has made some short-sighted decisions due to hardships brought on by Brexit. Taking the US side under President Donald Trump in such an apparent manner is one example. It may regard its economic ties with the US as its fixed deposit, and relations with China as investment. When it has to make a choice, safeguarding its deposit will become its priority.
But does it have to take sides? Was the UK too rushed to make such a hasty decision? If London was even halfway serious about profiting in the "Indo-Pacific," then joining the regional economic cooperation would be the way to go - not inciting certain politicians in Canberra to bark at Beijing.
Canberra will eventually discover that the other members of the Five Eyes alliance, who claim to have its back, have only created an optical illusion for the land down under. They won't send any real money to help the Australian economy. The next time Aussies are deep in the economic dumper, let's see who sends them a check that doesn't bounce. Can they cash in hypocritical political posturing? The answer is self-evident. Will they turn to reality and get back to practical matters? Hopefully.
The author is a reporter with the Global Times. email@example.com
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