Why Four More Years of Trump could be Good News for Australian Foreign Policy

American domestic politics has become an increasingly unpredictable phenomenon, and amidst the unfolding chaos of 2020, the outcome of the upcoming 2020 United States federal election is anyone’s guess. As Donald Trump fends off criticism over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and the democrats rally behind Joe Biden, the stakes of the fight for US presidency are greater than ever. But from Australia’s uniquely wedged position between our long-term American ally and a growing China, a re-election of Trump may provide Australia with a key foreign policy out.

Another four years of Trump is anything but a cause for celebration. However, there is a silver lining to be found regarding Australia’s specific foreign policy approach to engaging with both China and the US during a time of deepening rivalry.

The current global climate is dominated by the conflict between the two nations, especially economically. The most recent permutation of this tension has been the disagreement over the origins and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump labelling it the Chinese virus’ understandably antagonised the nation.  Nonetheless, this is conflict is not a specifically Trumpian phenomenon. It is a natural consequence of a changing international order and power reshuffling. This was articulated in 2017 when the first Australian Foreign Policy White Paper in 14 years noted that while “the United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-World War II history. Today, China is challenging America’s position”.

This poses a unique challenge for Australia. As a nation, partnering with the US is not only a consequence of shared democratic values, common interests and cultural similarities’ and historical tradition, it offers the potential of strategic security. China’s East-Asian expansion poses a potential threat to Australian security, particularly in relation to trade routes through the South-China Sea. A partnership with the United States, not only adds military might to Australia’s engagement in the region and helps to quell fears of further Chinese expansion, it also benefits the United States. The US is eager to make use of Australia as a geographically favourable ally to help combat and limit China’s rising regional influence. To this end, the Trump Administration recently called on Australia to extend its “step up” strategy in the Pacific.

Concurrent with this long-term military and social alliance with our Trans-Pacific ally, Australia is heavily reliant on China economically as our number one trading partner. As tensions between our two allies grow and diplomatic neutrality looks to be increasingly impossible, fears of losing the US as a partner have garnered debate over whether an engagement or confrontation approach is the appropriate strategy to deal with China.

Currently, these discussions are predominantly academic, if not entirely theoretical, however policy makers are becoming increasingly anxious about the forthcoming implications of the US and China rivalry. Senator Penny Wong said recently on Q+A that “Australia [has] no choice but to continue trading with China even if it [disagrees] with its values”. Quite bluntly, she concluded that “what we can’t do, though, is believe that somehow disengagement is an option”.

The Australian population has a good understanding of what is required going forward in such a situation – engagement with both China and the US. However, most lack a grasp of the complexity and difficulty of such an approach. As of 2018, around eight in ten (81%) Australians thought it was ‘possible for Australia to have a good relationship with China and a good relationship with the United States at the same time’.

This is where Trump offers a somewhat ironic lifeline. Trump is frequently – and accurately – painted in the media as a narcissistic, bombastic and bullying figure. His unpredictable nature and often vengeful responses leave allies “walking on eggshells” – a position the Trump administration uses to leverage negotiations and interactions in their favour.

With such a character at the helm, it is easy to conclude that any diplomatic relations should include a certain amount of pandering to Trump’s ego and laying down a carpet of flattery. But whilst these approaches seem valid initially, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the time of Trump’s election outlined his approach to the US president, writing “the one thing I’d learned with bullies is that sucking up to them is precisely the wrong way to go”.

As Australia sees itself increasingly drawn between its economic reliance on China and its traditional alliance with the United States, the presence of President Trump actually allows for Australia to start to extract itself this its historical tradition of unthinkingly siding with the US in every case. This is not to say that Australia should cut ties with the US entirely, or even drastically. Much of our strategic security agenda is still reliant on a powerful US ally, and American investment in Australia still significantly contributes to the Australian economy. However, a president who is not widely popular within Australia, or with other traditional allies, allows for an independent Australian voice. It gives Australia the space to re-evaluate its diplomatic default of siding with the US and instead, diverge in certain instances whilst still broadly retaining its precious alliance.

With public approval ratings of Trump being significantly lower than previous US presidents, the Australian government has more leeway to oppose US action without potential domestic repercussions, both in regard to specific policy objectives and at the ballot box more broadly. This ability to separate from the US not only signifies to the Trump administration that our alliance is not to be taken for granted, but it sends a message to China that whilst we are still allied with the US, we are not necessarily in lockstep.

Similarly, whilst engagement with China is a necessary component of Australian foreign policy, that does not mean its significance to Australian security and economy should be allowed to be lauded over Australia to coerce support in other areas.

The recent expansion by China into the South-China sea, as well as increasing investment in Australia, ultimately provides the growing power with even more influence in the region – the leasing of Port Darwin being only one example of a strategic asset now in foreign ownership. The effect of this is a great difficulty for Australia to stand up to China’s domestic and international actions, as potential retribution is far more costly.

On May 5, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, interestingly noted that China was showing it is a bully”, and suggested a strikingly similar approach to Turnbull’s Trump strategy to combat this. Pearson stated, “The way you deal with bullies is you don’t just roll over and lie down. You do have to stand up to them”.

For Australia, this involves a more restrictive approach to allowing Chinese foreign investment, as well as increased vocalisation regarding potential human rights abuses and advances in the Pacific region. At the same time, Australia cannot act as a US pawn advancing American goals in the region.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a meeting with the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison at the Centre de Congrés Bellevue Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, in Biarritz, France, site of the G7 Summit.

In standing up to both bullies, Australia generates a certain creative ambiguity in terms of the stances it can take in response to rapidly changing events in the ongoing tensions between the two nations. This is a useful tool for a middle power to possess – without inherent assumptions regarding where alliances lie, Australian partnership is a valuable bargaining chip to be able to trade to our advantage.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent call for an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of COVID-19, with a focus on wet-markets, is an example of this in action. It draws a middle ground between the United States’ arguably predetermined investigation into a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, which China labelled a political witch-hunt, and yielding to China’s push for no inquiry at all. Instead it is a furtherment of Australia’s own agenda, and what Senator Penny Wong called the right thing to do”, for Australia and the international community at large.

Even so, there is a danger in this strategy for a middle power – go too far and Australia will find itself stripped of the benefits of both a crucial economic partner and a powerful military ally. Indeed, the call for an independent investigation into the pandemic has led China to propose placing tariffs on Australian-imported barley, a move that would be catastrophic for the industry. But, Australia has received support from US Congress, with a letter in early May stating they “will always have Australia’s back and condemning Chinese economic retaliation. 

Whilst this approach does seem a precarious balancing act, it successfully navigates the US-China conflict – a situation that shows no sign of abating. Being able to carve an independent path between the two is making the best of a bad situation and could lead to long-term benefits for Australia.

A potential re-election of Trump in November yields both good and bad news. The United States, and global community at large, must manage a President who has shown blatant disregard for rule of law and traditional norms of international diplomacy and trade – a President who advances a protectionist policy of America-first through tweets. But to find the silver-lining of such a situation, wedged between the conflict of a changing power balance between China and the US, having four additional years of Trump allows Australia more freedom to carve its own path through the chaos.

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