'Don't let Brexit acrimony aid China' Australia warns

London: Alexander Downer, Australia's High Commissioner to Britain, has warned the EU that it must take into account the role Britain can play in upholding the Western rules-based global order, saying it is in no-one's interests for the talks to break down in acrimony.

Delivering the Menzies Lecture to the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the King's College in London, Mr Downer said blame would be apportioned to both sides if Britain and the EU's post-Brexit relationship was anything but harmonious.

He said one of the ways Australia views Britain's vote to leave the European Union was in the "geo-politics of the times".

"What is the greatest single geo-political issue of our era? That is the rise of China," he said.

He said China's rise had been beneficial in many ways to Australia but has also presented challenges to world.

"So for us, what Australia wants is ... a strong and decisive Western world which will stand up for the rules-based international system and reinforce the importance of upholding that rules-based international system.

"So from that point of view, in this era of changing power balances, we want to be sure that the countries which share our perspectives of the rules-based international system, of world order, and have the same commitment we have to global stability are holding together as a broad, albeit loose coalition."

British Prime Minister Theresa May is being urged by some parts of her party to walk away from Brexit negotiations in favour of the "no deal" option, which would see Britain trade with the EU based on WTO rules instead of the tarrif-free access guaranteed as part of the single market.

Talks are breaking down because Britain wants to begin negotiating its post-Brexit relationship but the EU wants to first agree upon a so-called "divorce bill" - or Britain's financial obligations to the EU. The EU wants Britain to accept that it owes the EU 60 billion euros ($70 billion) to cover commitments it made during its membership, including loans to member states and pension liabilities for EU staff.

Mr Downer said: "It will not be in the interests of the Western world if those negotiations break down in acrimony."

"We have a high expectation that in the negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom this overarching factor will be taken into account.

And he warned both sides would be blamed if the talks ended bitterly but said at a later media conference: "It's not just incumbent on the British government but its incumbent on the EU to make sure these negotiations work successfully so there's no point in the EU putting to the UK propositions which are just unimaginable in the UK".

Speaking to an audience of about 350 people, Mr Downer also revealed the contents of Malcolm Turnbull's first phone call to him after Brexit, in which the Prime Minister noted that his former Cabinet colleague had wrongly predicted the outcome.

"He said to me 'you were wrong, you told me that the British or the UK would vote to remain in the EU and they didn't'," Mr Downer recounted.

"At least I wasn't alone," Mr Downer said to laughter.

He said Mr Turnbull asked what Australia's best position on Brexit should be, conscious that the British public had ignored the US President Barack Obama's urgings for Britain to endorse the status quo.

Mr Downer said he urged the government to focus on striking a trade deal.

Australia and Britain have held three rounds of scoping talks about a future trade deal it can strike once Britain leaves the EU, scheduled for March 2019. Britain cannot formally negotiate or strike a deal with Australia or any other country while it remains in the EU and it could also be forbidden for the duration of any transition period, likely two years.

Mr Downer said with very little barriers to Australians and Britons investing in each other's countries, the focus would be on increasing access for Australian executives wanting to work in Britain, increasing links with the higher education sectors via exchanges of university students and academics, and boosting services.

He said it has been Australia's view that Brexit would not have a "huge impact" on Australia's economic or security interests.

Follow Latika Bourke on Facebook

This story 'Don't let Brexit acrimony aid China' Australia warns first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.