Politics | Australia vexed over future of its security alliance with US

Australia vexed over future of its security alliance with US

Trump’s campaign painted US defense commitments as a bad deal for Americans; Canberra is now split on where its relationship with Washington stands

November 16, 2016 12:14 PM (UTC+8)
The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour. Photo: AFP
The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour. Photo: AFP

The election of Donald Trump throws into uncertainty Australia’s place in a geopolitical order credited with securing decades of peace and prosperity.

Australia has relied on its military alliance with the US for its security since shortly after the end of World World II. Canberra signed a defense treaty in 1951 and has fought alongside the US in every major conflict since. As China has risen steadily as a military and economic power in the region, successive Australian governments have trumpeted the importance of strengthening the military alliance. Recent Australian prime ministers have been enthusiastic supporters of President Barack Obama’s “Asian Pivot,” welcoming US Marines to Darwin, a remote northern city, as part of the US buffer against Chinese dominance.

Trump’s conventional wisdom-shattering rise to the White House, however, has thrown all that into doubt, coming after an election campaign that painted US defense commitments as a bad deal for Americans. Candidate Trump repeatedly accused Japan and South Korea of ripping off taxpayers by only paying part of the cost of hosting American troops on their soil, and suggested the US should not automatically come to the aid of NATO allies under attack.

“Trump has campaigned on a platform of changing the fundamental bipartisan consensus on US security policy that existed since the end of the Second World War,” said Peter Dean, a senior fellow at Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. “We must expect that Trump will do things differently than US administrations have done in the past.”

Last Thursday, Paul Keating – a former prime minister who led a center-left government in the early 1990s – suggested that Australia take its own steps toward greater security independence.

“We’ve got to this almost sort of crazy position now where the American alliance, instead of simply being a treaty where the United States is obliged to consult with us in the event of adverse strategic circumstances, it has now taken on a reverential, sacramental quality,” Keating told ABC, the national broadcaster, calling on Australia to “cut the tag” with US foreign policy.

Sparsely populated and located on the periphery of a teeming, rapidly growing region, Australia has built its defense policy with the assumption of strong American backing.

“If you go back and look at our recent Defense White Paper, it’s absolutely absorbed in the notion of the US alliance and what they call the ‘rules-based global order,’ which is mentioned about 130 times,” Dean said, “and in reality the ‘rules-based global order’ comment is really code for US-led order in the world.”

While his election has sparked anxiety, President Trump’s likely approach to Australia is far from clear. Apart from general uncertainty about how literal or firm any of his foreign policy positions actually are, Trump has never explicitly named Australia as one of the supposed freeloaders in his sights. In fact, his advisors have suggested he thinks otherwise: in September, the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop returned from a US visit with assurances that Trump sees the country as a “close and strong ally.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered similar reassurances of stability this week when he described before parliament his phone call to congratulate the US president-elect.

“We agreed that presence has been an absolutely essential foundation of the peace and stability that has enabled the remarkable growth and prosperity — the remarkable economic growth we have seen over the last 40 years,” said Turnbull, a member of the conservative Liberal Party.

Dean said Trump may consider Australia more useful than other allies.

“I mean, we’ve become more and more important matched with the rise of China, from a geography point of view,” he said. “We’re a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, we’re a very politically stable low-risk country that doesn’t have any border issues and is very unlikely to drag the United States into a conflict in our region.”

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