Trump and the Australia-China-US Triangle

Recent Features


Trump and the Australia-China-US Triangle

Trump and the Australia-China-US Triangle
Credit: Australian Prime Minister’s Office

The ascendency of Donald Trump to the apogee of American political power on a wave of populist, anti-establishment, and illiberal furor set America, and the world, onto uncharted waters for the next four years – destination unknown. Trump’s arrival to the White House, and the questions it raises for the United States’ geopolitical position in the Asia-Pacific, has potentially vast implications for Australia’s cultural, military, and economic alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Australia is delicately poised between the United States, its military and strategic ally (and a valuable economic one at that), and China, the region’s nascent hegemon, whose economic growth in the preceding decades has laid the bedrock for a robust and prosperous Australian economy.

The degree to which Australia’s alliance framework will be impacted is largely dependent on Trump’s policy toward China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific. The security and economic environment in which Australia functions is largely determined by the United States and China, and thus any conflict between them can have immense implications for Australia’s strategic and economic security. The role of the U.S. as Australia’s military guarantor, and China as its economic one, may come under pressure if an anti-China Trump marries continued U.S. military support with Australia’s acquiescence on an array of putative policies, or berates Australia for cozying up to Washington’s greatest geopolitical threat.

Trump’s policy roadmap for the Asia-Pacific, specifically its policy toward China, remains vague. Trump has called China a “currency manipulator,” brazenly threatened to impose a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports, and labeled climate change a Chinese “hoax.” However, he has also guaranteed that the two nations would have “one of the strongest relationships,” a pledge solidified by Trump’s move to select President Xi Jinping’s long-time friend, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, as U.S. ambassador to China.

These mixed signals have diplomatic circles panicking. Given that the United States buys 18 percent of Chinese exports, and China buys approximately 33 percent of Australia’s exports, Trump’s tariffs and the inevitable resulting trade war would have disastrous effects on the economies of China, the United States and Australia, completely destabilizing the global economy. Trump’s policy toward the rest of the Asia-Pacific is similarly vague. He signaled his intentions pre-election to re-evaluate regional alliances, withdraw from regional disputes in the South and East China Seas, and demand that allies in the region – namely Japan and South Korea – pay up for continued U.S. military support. This would encourage the flotilla of other U.S. allies in the region – such as the Philippines and Malaysia – to mitigate the uncertainty regarding their security foundation by seeking closer ties with Beijing. Vietnam, a nation historically willing to entertain brinkmanship with China, is likely to do the same.

The question then, is how does Australia respond to the changing great power dynamics in the region, and ensure that it recognizes the importance of both the United States and China in Australia’s alliance framework without exacerbating tensions between the two?

Back in November 2010, during the AUSMIN meetings in Melbourne, Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian, “Indeed, contrary to much public analysis, there is no evidence these objectives [of a close economic relationship with Beijing and a strategic relationship with Washington] are irreconcilable or that Australia cannot keep its U.S. alliance and its expanding China partnership, notwithstanding inevitable tensions along the road.”

Whilst this is true in theory, the Trump administration is likely to deepen Australia’s geopolitical predicament and create an environment where such a balancing act may no longer be plausible. Canberra has signaled its intention to join a proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) agreement following the collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, championed by current President Barack Obama but already rejected by Trump. FTAAP would cover APEC members. Another Australia-backed deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, would include 16 nations, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – but not the United States.

Under the Obama presidency, the United States, although voicing concerns tacitly about the rise of China, maintained that “Australia does not need to choose between the United States and China.” Trump’s belligerence, irrationality, and veritable ignorance of the complexity of the international geopolitical order may place Australia in a situation where that choice must be made, regardless of his reassurances to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the value of Australia’s partnership with the United States. In this situation, congruent with his rhetoric on China, Trump would place a caveat on continued military support for Australia, as he has similarly posited for Japan and South Korea, and demand that Australia begin to look elsewhere for the bulk of its trade or look elsewhere for military protection. Similar caveats may be imposed on Australia’s interaction with “freeloading” nations such as Japan and South Korea. If Trump intends to pit the United States against China in a global game of chess, he may demand that Australia pick a side.

This is unlikely. However, the facts are stark – Trump’s election as president of the United States shatters the framework of the current U.S.-led order in the Asia-Pacific, which Australia relies on for its own domestic security and trading routes, and makes it far more likely that Australia will be in the middle of a legitimate conflict between its two greatest allies. Any U.S. retrenchment from the region, or a seismic shift in currently levels of U.S. engagement, would require a parallel shift in Australian foreign policy. Even if Trump pledges his commitment to Australia and the ANZUS alliance, it will be important for Australia to seek a “more independent, balanced foreign policy,” as former Prime Minister Paul Keating put it, in the wake of the election. Australia must focus on greater security and military cooperation with China and other allies in the region – namely, Japan and South Korea, but also Malaysia and Indonesia. The Australian government must prioritize bilateral and multilateral partnerships that seek to ensure the security of each nation and encourage transparency in the face of an uncertain geopolitical environment. It must also seek to use these alliances to invest in regional institutions to help build a policy consensus, and to create a robust regional framework that encourages clarity in responses to geopolitical events and proposes robust controls around crisis management.

Avoiding unnecessary choices needs to be one of the cornerstones of Australian foreign policy in an environment where its two most important allies are competing against each other for global hegemony. Australia must continue to pursue closer ties with China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific, and in doing so, recognize that the United States is still Australia’s most important ally, and the world’s most powerful nation – all without becoming Trump’s doormat.

Nick Derewlany is an International Relations and Political Economy graduate from the University of Sydney, Australia, currently working for Wikistrat, an online geopolitical risk consultancy.