The Poms are here, but unlike the Ashes, both sides emerged victorious. Top-level meetings between Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, Defence Minister Stephen Smith and their UK contemporaries William Hague and Liam Fox, were declared by Hague as “the most substantial British visit to Australia in many decades.”

The military rise of China, cyber security, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars and the future relationship of Britain and Australia were discussed. Dubbed AUKMIN, the ministerial meetings,will now held yearly.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague — who spent yesterday morning turning the snags with Rudd at a barbie for flood volunteers in Brisbane’s West End –spoke at the Lowy Institute. His speech, “laden with wit and bonhomie”, discussed Britain shifting its foreign policy focus to Asia and reinvigorating the Commonwealth as a stronghold of democracy:

“Under our government, Britain will look more to Australia, and indeed to New Zealand, than our predecessors (Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) did… Our ambition is to reconnect with Australia and to open a new era in our bilateral relations.

“Therein lies a real choice for the Commonwealth…Will it make the leap necessary to live up to its ideals fully, make a greater contribution to its citizens and have a bigger impact on world affairs, or will it continue to tread softly?”

Don’t think of this change in relationship as a step backwards for Australia, says an editorial in The Australian:

Asia must remain the focus for Australia, but we too can benefit from a healthy relationship with Britain — the world’s sixth-biggest economy with the fourth-biggest defence budget. Britain is a powerful member of the European Union and NATO, with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Notwithstanding its present economic problems, it remains one of our biggest sources of foreign direct investment, a relationship that arguably demands more sophisticated understanding of a country than does direct trade. In the 21st century, getting closer to Britain should be seen as a mark of our maturity, not dependency.

This news comes as back home William Hague is under increased pressure for “losing his mojo”, due to personal issues, says Benedict Brogan in The Telegraph.

This week, William Hague has been further from London than any of his predecessors in nearly 20 years, correcting a glaring diplomatic oversight by spending some time in Australia, an ally shamefully neglected by recent administrations. The Foreign Secretary wants to rekindle our interest in the English-speaking world by lavishing a bit more TLC on the Commonwealth and its members…

…The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been restored to its lead role in shaping our relations with the world…. Despite the uncertainties imposed by a difficult financial settlement, there is a renewed sense of confidence at the FCO…. The Foreign Office has got its mojo back, just when Mr Hague has lost his.

This intense networking is typical of the Brits, writes Hamish McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald:

British power, so it has been widely believed, always operated by a system of string-pulling and club connections. Now it’s official.

Greg Sheridan at The Australian explains how he planted the seed for the AUSMIN talks back in 2006:

Perhaps no international relationship Australia has is so wreathed in sentiment, mythology, good-natured caricature, intimacy and ambivalence as that which we have with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to give the country its correct and seldom used official title…

…Howard had invited me, and quite a few others, to dinner that night with Blair at the Lodge. I had five minutes alone with each of Blair, Howard, then foreign minister Alexander Downer, and then head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Michael L’Estrange. I put the same case to each of them separately. Blair and Howard responded in the way experienced politicians do when they meet nutty voters from Gulargambone who want them to reverse the direction of the rivers, or some such: they were polite but noncommittal. Blair joked to me that perhaps Britain and Australia together could invade China.

Downer responded thoughtfully and you could see the idea taking up residence in his head. Next day Blair was attending an Australian cabinet meeting. All the ministers were showing off, of course, but when Downer’s turn to speak came, he apologised to Blair and Howard for springing a surprise but suggested that perhaps the two countries could replicate AUSMIN, the annual meeting of US and Australian foreign and defence ministers, the political heart of the US-Australia alliance.

To the horror of his bureaucrats — no bureaucrats like surprises, especially those that commit them to future work and lengthy travel – Blair responded with immediate enthusiasm and relish. So did Howard. Thus AUKMIN was born.

Peter Fray

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