Donald Trump’s decision to nominate the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, for the position of Secretary of State will have surprised Australians probably as much as anyone else. Whether it is good news or bad news for the Land Down Under is too early to tell, mainly because no one knows Tillerson’s positions on some of the key global issues which he will need to address if — and that’s a big if — he gets Senate confirmation.
However, one thing is definitely sure. Donald Trump’s election win has seriously rattled the foreign affairs and defense community in Australia. It has not only come as a shock but it got political leaders, opinion-makers, and academics pondering as to what this means for Australia.
Unfortunately, because foreign affairs was not a critical issue often debated in the presidential campaign, Australians have very little to rely on to assess what a Trump presidency will mean for the country and ANZUS, the 65-year-old alliance with the United States. Nevertheless, most commentators agree that a Trump administration means that things will not remain the same. The question is how much change will there be.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was the second world leader whom President-elect Trump called. Reportedly, the conversation went well. Turnbull stressed the importance of global free trade and that Trump should rethink his position about rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Unfortunately, Trump’s position on this issue and other trade agreements was a core and consistent policy position during his campaign, and all the good will toward Australia is not about to change this. The good news is that it is unlikely that a Trump administration will want to renegotiate the 2005 U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement, as it very much benefits the United States.
Another thing which is almost certain is that Trump will be seeking to have America’s allies around the world contribute more financially to their defense. He has repeated this on a number of occasions on the campaign trail, whether talking about NATO members, South Korea, or Japan. And while he has not specifically singled out Australia on this issue, there will nevertheless likely be a lot of pressure on the Australian government to pull more of its military weight in the region. This will be despite the fact that Australia has excellent bilateral military relations with the United States.
However, in spite of this intimate and long-standing bilateral relationship, the election of Donald Trump has led to a soul-searching debate in Australia about the U.S.-Australia alliance and what it means for the country, particularly on the left of politics. Needless to say, Trump’s unique character and the unusual, outlandish, often offensive, and bizarre things which he said during the presidential campaign have not helped matters. Accordingly, the election of Trump has been grist to the mill of the chattering class which has regularly questioned Australia’s close foreign policy alignment with Washington.
It did not take long following the election of Trump for liberals, progressives, and other fellow ideological travelers to publicly question the alliance and advocate a more independent foreign policy. Yesterday’s political luminaries from the left-leaning Labor Party, such as former Prime Minister Paul Keating and former foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr, have been busy advocating that Australia take a more independent line. Keating even went as far as to suggest that Australia “cut the tag” with American foreign policy.
While stressing the importance of continued American engagement in the region, Senator Penny Wong, spokesperson on foreign affairs for the opposition Labor Party, has been echoing the same sentiments, recommending that Australia have an independent foreign policy within the framework of the alliance. This is effectively advocating an à la carte commitment to the alliance: pick the good bits, and reject the not so good ones. I seriously doubt that such an approach would be acceptable to a Trump administration.
The governing conservative parties (the Liberal and National parties), on the other hand, have a less alarmist view of what a Trump administration could mean for Australia and the region. Turnbull was quite positive in his assessment of the Trump victory, stating that “he is a businessman, a deal maker, and he will, I have no doubt, view the world in a very practical and pragmatic way.” The Australian ambassador to the U.S., Joe Hockey, stresses that the Trump people “love Australia.”
Commentators like to refer to an article by two of Trump’s senior advisers on foreign affairs, Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro, to reassure wavering Australians that under a Trump administration the United States “would remain committed in the long-term to its traditional role as guarantor of the liberal order in Asia” and to its “commitment to America’s Asian alliances.” However, despite a campaign promise to increase the U.S. Navy to 350 ships, there is absolutely no guarantee that a President Trump would necessarily hold his ground against an aggressive China. In an interview with the Washington Post in March 2016, Trump said that he didn’t think the United States would go to war over the South China Sea. After all, he has clearly shown his isolationist tendencies, starting with his “America First” campaign slogan.
It would be too easy, but wrong, to compare a talk-tough Trump with President Ronald Reagan, who also spoke about having America respected again by the world and who succeeded another risk-adverse Democratic president. Reagan also significantly built up the Navy and stood up to the Soviet Union. However, the fundamental difference between these two periods is that the USSR by Reagan’s time was in decline and within 10 years had ceased to exist. China, on the other hand, is on the rise, and unless there is a sudden collapse of the ruling Communist party (unlikely), it will become more difficult to militarily counter Chinese aggressive behavior. The question that then arises is whether Washington’s will to stand up to China is greater than Beijing’s drive to contest the maritime space in the South China Sea (SCS) and elsewhere. And this is where Australians get nervous.
It will only be a matter of time before the Trump administration will request that Australia participate in joint Freedom of Navigation patrols in the SCS to challenge China’s 12 mile territorial waters claim around the controversial artificial islands it has created. Australia has been able to avoid participating in such patrols until now. But given Trump’s repeated statements about wanting to see U.S. allies pull their weight, Canberra will no longer be able to duck this one. It’s a decision policymakers would prefer not to have to make. It’s made that much more difficult because of the uncertainly as to how committed would Trump really be in staying in the region. But probably even more important in the decision-making equation is what impact would this have on Australia’s trade with China, which is the destination of 35 percent of Australia’s exports.
Notwithstanding the potential danger of retaliation by the Chinese against Australia’s exports, there is a strong argument to be made for Australia to participate in joint patrols with the United States. Not only would this confirm Canberra’s commitment to the alliance, it would also demonstrate that Australia firmly believes in the principles of freedom of navigation and the rule of law. Moreover, it would reassure the countries of the region that Australia actually stands by its principles and that it can be counted on for military support. Hopefully, this would reduce the risk of countries deciding to switch to China, as the Philippines effectively did recently.
While there is no question of abandoning — at least for the moment — the alliance with the United States and turning to China instead, this very public conversation questioning the value of the U.S. alliance would be very sweet music to the ears of the Communist leaders in Beijing. The more dissent they can cause in the Western camp the better it is for them, and all this without firing a single shot. The Chinese must think they are on a winning streak.
All in all, if to ensure Americans do not withdraw from the region means spending a bit more on defense, then this is a price Australians and other countries in the region should be ready to pay. The consequences of an American drawdown or the ripping up of the alliance, as some more extreme Australian voices advocate, would have far-reaching financial consequences for the Australian treasury. The Australian government would have to double its present commitment of 2 percent of GNP to defense spending to compensate for the loss of American military cover. This would mean other important socioeconomic programs would need to be significantly cut. And this may be a bridge too far, even for some of the more independently-inclined and China-friendly Australians.
Dr. Claude Rakisits is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.