' Cautious approach the rule for Dominic Raab and Britannia' Greg Sheridan, The Australian
Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network will decline, Australia and the UK could conclude a trade agreement in 12 months, Asia is a priority, Donald Trump’s America is a stalwart ally, and let’s all hold hands on climate change.
These are the relatively bold conclusions from a conversation with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, in the only newspaper interview of his Australian visit this week.
Mr Raab made his first overseas visit to Australia after Britain finally left the EU, and now travels to Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. Making Australia first is a statement of purpose and priority.
He is a coming man in British politics, so far as that can be said about anyone living in the fluorescent glare of Boris Johnson.
Mr Raab, 45, is a former diplomat, has been a passionate Brexiteer all along, has a black belt in karate, and was a semi-serious contender for the Tory leadership but backed Mr Johnson enthusiastically when he himself was eliminated from the contest.
As well as being Foreign Secretary, he is the First Secretary, which makes him something like the deputy leader of the Johnson government.
Unlike the swashbuckling approach of Mr Johnson when he was foreign secretary, Mr Raab speaks cautiously. But still he has substantial things to say.
His three pillars of Britain’s new foreign policy are: building a better relationship with Europe after Brexit; looking out to the world as “global Britain”; and making Britain a greater force for good in matters such as human rights. That’s enough of the platitudes. What about when the rubber hits the road?
Mr Raab will discourse at length about the security intimacy between Britain and Australia, and the other Five Eyes nations — the US, Canada and New Zealand.
So how come Britain is letting Huawei into its 5G network when the US and Australia regard such participation as too great a risk?
“We looked at it very carefully,” he says. After exhaustive review, “our approach was to exclude high-risk vendors, including Huawei, from activities at the core, to ban them from specific sensitive locations, whether it was military sites or whatever, and to cap their activity at the periphery”.
The British government has said that Huawei will not be allowed to exceed 35 per cent market share in non-core 5G network activities. But Mr Raab says this figure may never be reached and in any case will decline over time.
“The cap is the ceiling,’’ he said. “We’ve always said this is a result of a market failure. We shouldn’t find ourselves in the position where we have to rely on high-risk vendors. We should be operating with high-trust vendors.’’
Mr Raab prefigures an important Five Eyes initiative: “We’ll work very hard, including with all our Five Eyes partners, and we’ll look at our fiscal and regulatory incentives, and the competition regime we have in the UK, to make sure we encourage more homegrown operators into the telecoms hi-tech market that can provide those infrastructure services.
“The objective is to reduce the access that any high-risk vendor has to any of those precious infrastructure projects.”
Numerous sources, not Mr Raab, have told The Weekend Australian this is a high-priority, ongoing security dialogue among the US, Britain and Australia, to create greater non-Chinese alternatives to Huawei.
On trade, Mr Raab describes Australia as “one of the first-tier priorities”.
Britain will abide by all EU rules until the end of the transition period at the end of the year, partly because it wants to have a change of regulations “just once”.
But he says there is no reason why Britain cannot negotiate, finalise and all but implement a free-trade deal with Australia in the meantime. He won’t impose artificial deadlines, but he thinks a “win-win” trade deal with Australia is a hot prospect.
More than that, his government is also acutely interested in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which links Australia, Japan, Canada and a slew of Asian economies. “It (joining TPP) is something we’re excited about; it’s definitely an aspiration,” Mr Raab says, though the bilateral deals might come first.
He says the Johnson government has taken a definite “Indo-Pacific tilt” and occasionally offers the harmless flattery that London has much to learn from Australia about this region.
He also confirms London’s increased direction of diplomatic resources to the South Pacific, a move acutely welcomed by Canberra.
He wouldn’t be drawn on China’s actions in the South China Sea, except to reiterate that Britain is a strong defender of freedom of navigation and a promoter and champion of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Mr Raab talks a lot about climate change but was certainly careful not to criticise the Morrison government over targets or action. Instead, he sees the potential for a great deal of scientific collaboration with Australia.
Nonetheless, as Britain prepares to host the next big UN climate jamboree, there could well be some kind of disagreement between London and Canberra, though naturally Mr Raab would not acknowledge such a possibility, saying only that Britain wanted to provide leadership on climate and would encourage all nations to be ambitious.
Naturally, he also steadfastly refused to criticise any aspect of the US President’s alliance diplomacy, saying: “We regard the Americans as stalwart allies.
“One of the roles for the UK is to try to keep the team together. I’ve talked of that in relation to climate change, but it also applies in relation to security.
“In relation to NATO, the Americans have made clear their commitment to it. We definitely agree with the Americans that all countries need to live up to their responsibilities to invest more in defence in line with their 2 per cent NATO commitments.”
Cautious but substantial, pretty much the right combination for a British foreign secretary, and certainly a good friend of Australia.
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