Shaping and hedging in a time of Trump
15 Nov 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user frankieleon.

Donald J. Trump is president-elect of the United States. What are the consequences for Australia?

Following a 15 minute phone call with Mr Trump, Prime Minister Turnbull moved to reassure a shell-shocked public that it’s business as usual. Shared values, long history, nothing to see here, move on.

What else could he say?

The reality is that everyone involved in defence, trade and foreign policy in Australia—politicians, officials and commentators—are scrambling to answer the same question; to what extent and in what ways do we need to rethink our policies in light of Trump’s victory?

Nowhere is that question more acute than in defence and strategic policy. As I pointed out in May, the 2016 Defence White Paper blithely asserts that the US will continue to play a stabilising role in the region into the foreseeable future. On the basis of Trump’s statements about US alliances, we now have a defence strategy that has at its heart a manifestly flawed planning assumption.

What’s more, the question itself has metastasised. We now have to ask whether the United State under Trump might not just be indifferent to our part of the world, but might actively erode the security of the region. Nuclear weapons for Seoul and Tokyo, anyone?

We need to act on two fronts. First, we need to explore ways to shape US policy consistent with our interests. As always, we’ll stand ready to provide counsel to our ally as the new administration finds its way in a volatile world. But given the avowed ‘America first’ slant of Trump’s campaign and its singular domestic focus, our influence is likely to be even more limited than usual.

A more transactional approach will probably be needed. Larger contributions to US operations, further expansion of our defence force and more extensive US access to our ports and airfields are all likely to be the currencies of the day. Spending 2% of GDP on defence may only be the first installment of what’s needed to convince the new deal-maker-in-chief.

The second thing we need to do is hedge against a US retrenchment by increasing our self-reliance. By that I don’t mean developing a more extensive domestic defence industry—we’ll never be industrially self-reliant—nor do I advocate changes to the planned shape of the ADF (but only because it’s pointless to try and wrest control from the military). Rather, it’s a question of timing.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, our ability to provide for our own defence is proportional to the size of defence force. The 2016 White Paper set out a plan to expand and modernise the ADF, but in critical areas—such as submarines and frigates—the delivery schedule is glacial. Trump’s election is just another reminder that the strategic landscape is changing quickly, and in ways inimical to our interests. What’s more, as the increasing obsolescence of the 2016 White Paper demonstrates, it’s changing in ways we (or at least our officials) have been unable to anticipate.

The planned slow-motion domestic construction of ships and submarines is an indulgence we can no longer afford. On current plans, our first new ASW capable frigate won’t enter service until the late 2020s, and our submarine flotilla won’t have its 12th boat before 2048. And that’s assuming that our local shipbuilders can avoid repeating the Collins and Air Warfare Destroyer debacles. If not, things will be much worse.

If we must build vessels in country for the sake of a couple of thousand jobs, so be it. But let’s not ignore the option of bolstering our naval defences more quickly through concurrent rapid purchases. The RAAF has shown the way in recent years by smoothly introducing potent off-the-shelf platforms into service, such as the F-18 Super Hornet .

Of course, there’s a host of nuances ignored by the forgoing analysis. For example, there’s the question of how we manage our defence relationships with other US allies in the region. That and other questions can and should be considered carefully as the new US administration’s foreign policy becomes clear. And we’ll have to find a way to cut through the layers of process that impede too many of our defence purchases. But none of that’s an excuse for sitting on our hands when it comes to the concrete question of defence capability.

The good news is that there’s no conflict between the requirements of shaping and hedging. A more rapid development of a stronger defence force would both increase our self-reliance and bolster our value as an ally. Even if you believe, as at least one ex-prime minister does, that it’s time to distance ourselves from the United States and ‘make our way in Asia ourselves’, the imperative to bolster our defences remains. We should get on with it.