Donald Trump spoke to Malcolm Turnbull within 24 hours of his election. The event produced a quaint response in commentary redolent of an older era in the character of allied relationships.
On the one hand, there was gratitude that our important ally hadn’t overlooked us. On the other, Trump’s election campaign, wherein the candidate disparaged China, trash-talked the TPP, and criticised Seoul and Tokyo for not pulling their weight in support of their own defence, simply reinforced the views of some senior politicians and academics that we should disconnect from the alliance and concentrate on Asia. Mr Turnbull’s focus on their mutual business experience, while understandable, kept contemplation of the significance of the call brief.
According to the Prime Minister’s office Mr Turnbull was the second political leader President-elect Trump spoke to after his election victory. The priority we were assigned is very significant. It reflects, in part, the fact that we have a unique status in the Trump view of alliances—the only one where the American partner’s contribution wasn’t criticised by candidate Trump. Privately, his policy advisors and campaign team made thoroughly clear to us that they understand both the value of past and current commitments in military campaigns but also the importance to the US of facilities we share, capabilities we’re acquiring from American industry, and mutually embedded military and intelligence personnel.
From our point of view, the product of those facilities, the technological advantages we gain from US equipment and our involvement in the development of new capabilities under the so-called ‘Third Offset Strategy’ are crucial to Australia’s defence and unaffordable in any other relationship. Our current status with Washington has evolved well beyond the situation that existed at the end of the Cold War.
The challenge now is how we use that connection to influence American policy in our region where all our friends and allies are deeply disturbed by what they heard from the GOP nominee. Trump’s campaign positions translated into administration policy would result in the suspension of America’s leadership of the post-World War II liberal international project. Originally, the project focused on global free trade, a rules-based system for the global commons, and a comprehensive Western alliance under a system of American extended deterrence. More recently, those priorities have been joined by an effort on nuclear disarmament and a coordinated response to climate change.
A Trump indifferent to South Korean and Japanese nuclear weapons would dramatically destabilise our major trading partners in North Asia. A Trump declaration that China was a currency manipulator—a perception outdated by at least five years—and the promised imposition of a 45% tariff in his ‘first one hundred days’ plan, would be ruinous to the regional and global economy. However, Mr Trump now denies he ever said the former, and the latter would seem to fly in the face of the, albeit undetailed, protestations of mutual respect in the phone conversation between President Xi and the President-elect. Over the weekend, Newt Gingrich described the promise of a large, high, border wall with Mexico as a ‘campaign device’, an elegant exposition of a ‘non-core promise’. Asian leaders will hope that such ‘devices’ will come to characterise plans with regard to the Indo-Pacific.
Currently, the Asian leaders’ conversations with Trump and his team have been bilateral. They will have noted, however, the priority assigned the Australian conversation. They know that Australia wants nothing from the US beyond what it already has and which is unchallenged. They want Australia to be avidly engaged with the US. They know our regional policies and aren’t uncomfortable with them (with the possible Chinese exception to our South China Sea position). Quickly we will become message bearers.
A recent article in Foreign Policy by Trump advisers Alexander Gray and Peter Navarro appears to be the underpinning of possible trump Secretary of State Giuliani’s intervention this week on a more militaristic approach to policy in the Asia–Pacific region. He stated the Trump administration would undertake a massive military build-up aimed at countering China and curbing its ambitions. The article and the broader policy direction indicates that under Trump US leadership on the liberal international agenda will be suspended while the commitment to enhance American military capabilities and economic power will accelerate.
There’s much in the Foreign Policy article that will disturb Asian policy-makers. It’s a root-and-branch criticism of the implementation of Obama’s Asian pivot but not the priority. They characterise Obama’s implementation as ‘feckless and mendacious’, particularly in its responses to perceived Chinese initiatives. They’re hard-line on North Korean approaches, Taiwan’s defence and South China Sea signalling. As part of their counter-measures, they propose a massive build-up of the US Navy from 274 ships to 350 with a strong Pacific Ocean focus.
Trump plans to end sequestration in Defence spending and massively increase the defence budget. In the light of the ‘Third Offset Strategy’, the focus on platform numbers is antiquated. As the Trump administration evolves, they may eventually realise that it’s not the sum total of Navy and Air Force platforms which counts but the capabilities they deploy.
We’re in for a wild ride which will test our maturity and effectiveness. Abandoning the field isn’t an option.