Australia and the UK signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on December 17, 2021 (an in principle agreement had been announced in June 2021). This FTA will drastically reduce tariffs on a number of Australian exports to the UK and reduce duties on a number of British commodities to Australia. Significantly, it will also make it easier for both Australian and British workers to work in each other’s countries under the working holiday scheme (WHS).
According to estimates of the British government, the FTA could increase trade between the United Kingdom and Australia by approximately $19 billion “in the long run” while the UK’s GDP may increase by about $4.2 billion by 2035.
There are some important provisions which could benefit workers from both countries. Firstly, in an important step, both countries have increased the working holiday visa’s eligible age to 35. What is especially significant is that there is no pre-requisite for applicants under this category to be employed in any “specific work.” Second, Australia will permit up to 1,000 workers to come from the UK in the first year of a new “skills exchange” trial.
Symbolic importance of the FTA
In a post-pandemic world, society is becoming even more insular and borders are becoming more stringent, so encouraging professionals and workers is important. In June 2021, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said:
We’re opening up to each other and this is the prelude to a general campaign of opening up around the world.
The UK’s Secretary of State for International Trade, Anne Marie Trevelyan, described the deal as “a landmark moment in the historic and vital relationship between our two Commonwealth nations.”
The geopolitical significance of the FTA
From the UK’s point of view the FTA is important because the UK has been seeking to become more pro-active in the Indo-Pacific. Australia has been one of the most vocal proponents of the Free and Open Indo Pacific, and is also one of the members of the Quad (the other three members are the US, Japan, and India). From an economic standpoint the FTA is agreeable because the UK is seeking to get on board the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) (members of this group have a combined GDP of $13.5 trillion), and this deal will only bolster its chances. The UK has already signed trade agreements with two members of the CPTPP — Japan and Vietnam – in 2020. Interestingly the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), the precursor to the CPTPP, was conceived by former US President Barack Obama, but the US withdrew from the agreement during the Trump Administration (pulling the US out of the TPP was one of the first decisions taken by Donald Trump after he took over as President). The trade agreement had also been opposed by a number of Democrat leaders including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
For Australia, this agreement is especially significant because ever since the souring of relations with China, the bilateral economic relationship has been adversely impacted. China has imposed tariffs on a number of commodities, such as wine and barley, and also restricted imports of Australian beef, coal, and grapes. Under the Australia-UK FTA, tariffs on Australian wines will be terminated immediately, and the FTA will give a boost to the sales of not just wine but a number of other commodities boycotted by China. The FTA with the UK may not be able to compensate for the economic ramifications of strained ties with China, but it could pave the way for Australia exploring similar arrangements with a number of other countries.
In conclusion, the agreement between Australia and the UK is an important development and a clear reiteration of the point that the UK has an important role to play as a stakeholder in the vision of the “Free and Open Indo Pacific.” Second, the Indo Pacific needs to have a strong economic component and FTAs between countries are important in this context. Third, countries like Australia willing to bear the economic ramifications of a deterioration in ties with China need to look at alternative markets for their commodities. Finally, while there are certain areas where only the US can provide global leadership, US allies need to chart their own course, as is evident not only from FTAs signed between many of them, but also by the success of the CPTPP without the US being on board.