In the unsettled weeks since Donald Trump’s election, many prominent voices in Australia’s strategic policy community—including Kim Beazley , Dennis Richardson, Angus Houston and of course Malcolm Turnbull—have rushed to answer the question whether Mr Trump’s victory means we should step back from our alliance with the United States.
They have all said that we shouldn’t, and of course they are right. Australia’s alliance with America is a great national asset, which has provided immense strategic benefits at very little cost. We should hang on to it as long as we can.
But they are answering the wrong question. The issue for Australia today isn’t whether we should step back from our alliance with America, but whether America is stepping back from its alliance with us. Or, to put it a little more precisely, the question is whether we can be sure that America will continue to play in future the same strategic role in supporting Asian security and Australia’s defence that it has played for the past few decades.
The question is worth asking because Australia’s defence and foreign policy today depends completely on the assumption that the answer is ‘yes’. In particular, and most importantly, that assumption underpins our entire approach to managing the strategic implications of China’s rise.
The more serious and overt China’s challenge to the regional order has become, the more Australian governments have relied to America to deal with it. They’ve assumed that Washington will find a way to contain China’s growing power and ambition that preserves the old US-led regional order without endangering our economic relations with China. And they’ve assumed that if that somehow fails, America will remain committed to ensuring Australia’s security in the more dangerous and contested Asia that would follow.
So we have a lot riding on the assumption that America is going to play the role we expect. Washington’s foreign and defence policy establishment have assured us it will. But can we take their word for it? If there is any serious doubt, we need to think again, and change our policy. And there are serious doubts, and not just because Mr Trump is to be President.
The more important reasons to doubt America’s future role in Asia have to do with the fundamental shift in the distribution of relative economic weight between America and China, America’s dwindling military advantage in maritime operations in the Western Pacific, China’s growing diplomatic weight in the region, Beijing’s evident determination to change the regional order in its favour, and the evident failure of the Obama Administration’s ‘rebalance’ policy to counteract all these trends and persuade China to back off.
That’s quite a list, and it would have confronted whoever won the election three weeks ago. But Mr Trump’s election is still significant because, unlike Hillary Clinton, he didn’t even try to convince the voters that that America could and would sustain its long-standing leadership role in Asia in light of these trends.
On the contrary, his ‘America First’ slogan sketched a perfectly credible new American strategic posture which abandoned the post-Cold War vision of US global leadership, defined US interests more narrowly and pursued the more effectively. Many American voters—Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders as well as Republicans who voted for Trump—clearly want some kind of radical change to the foundations of US foreign policy. From their perspective they might well be right.
Nonetheless many people in Washington and Canberra are now hoping that in the Oval Office Mr Trump will revert to the old orthodoxies of US global leadership. The evidence of this year’s election is strongly against that kind of ‘business-as-usual’ assumption. But even if he did, could he make them work? He would find himself facing the same tough problems as his predecessor. Mr Trump can’t fix the faults in Mr Obama’s ‘rebalance’ simply by promising a bigger Navy or applying a bit more pressure.
So the issues here are much bigger than Mr Trump. We’re looking at real high-stakes power politics here. To face China down and reassert US leadership any President would have to be willing to accept big costs and risks, including the risks of a confrontation which could lead to conflict. Mr Trump doesn’t seem the person for that, but would Hillary Clinton have been any different? Would any future president?
Indeed, can we be confident that there’s any cause in Asia today which America would risk a major war with China over? For that matter, would we in Australia be willing to go to war against China to uphold US regional leadership? And if not, how can we expect America to do so? And how then can we be sure that America’s leadership in Asia, and its support for our security, will endure?
So it’s time to abandon our comfortable assumptions and instead consider two big questions. First, how can we help shape a new Asian order that could serve our interest best if the old one based on US leadership doesn’t survive? And how could we defend ourselves if we’re no longer sure America will do it for us?
Many of those who have rushed to defend the alliance seem to think there are no answers to these questions. They say that the alliance is simply indispensable, that we have no option but to cling to it, and no future without it. But one wonders whether they have ever really thought about what the alternatives might be.
If they did, they might perhaps find that they are selling our country a little short by assuming that there’s simply nothing we could do to secure Australia’s own place in Asia without US support. We just need to think a bit harder, and a bit more courageously, about what that might mean. And I think that was what Penny Wong was getting at when she said that Mr Trump’s election should nudge us towards fresh thinking.