Trump uncertainty scrambles top Asian allies

Confusion over whether the US president-elect will adopt an isolationist or interventionist approach is already testing key strategic alliances

Perth, January 18, 2017 4:42 PM (UTC+8)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a joint press conference with Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull at Kirribilli House in Sydney on January 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHAN
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a joint press conference with Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull at Kirribilli House in Sydney on January 14, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHAN

When Australia was weighing submarine procurement options in 2015, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott appeared to favor an off-the-rack purchase of Japan’s Soryu-class option rather than putting the fleet replacement to a competitive evaluation process (CEP). The proposed deal, driven by the Japanese government’s desire to boost weapons exports, would have given Australia a strong level of interoperability with the United States’ Pacific Fleet and created a near trilateral alliance between Australia, America and Japan to patrol the region’s waters.

The bidding was later opened to others, namely Germany and France, with the latter’s Barricuda-class submarine winning the multibillion- dollar deal last year. While Japan’s losing bid was seen as a setback for defense ties, Canberra and Tokyo are now working to boost those relations in light of the strategic uncertainty caused by the rise of US president-elect Donald Trump.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bidding in a whirlwind tour to shore up confidence in the region while also keeping US relations on an even keel. He recently concluded a trip to Australia, his first visit since Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister over two years ago. Local media referred to the visit as an “informal stop” and the two leaders addressed the press on January 14 after a walking tour of Sydney’s cliffs.

Both reaffirmed their joint commitment to a rules-based order, dependable security partnership and open markets, including commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership multilateral trade pact that Trump has vowed to scrap. Abe alluded in his press comments to an “increasingly severe” security environment, saying: “To ensure a free and open international order based on the rule of law, our bilateral cooperation and trilateral cooperation with the United States is, of course, important.”

Abe’s tour, including stops in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia, has been marked by generous offers of assistance. Vietnam is set to receive more Japanese patrol boats to fortify its claims in the South China Sea, Indonesia was extended US$646 million worth of “business opportunities” for “coastal development and irrigation” and the Philippines offered a whopping US$8.7 billion in economic assistance.

The largesse reflects Japan’s rising concern about what Trump’s election will mean for regional security and China’s poll position to fill any gap left by a US withdrawal. Abe also aimed to reassure strategically important Southeast Asian partners that Japan’s adherence to a rules-based order is a worthy goal and Tokyo a reliable partner in light of China’s rising assertiveness over contested territories in the South China Sea.

There is little public support in Australia for following a Trump-led US on any military adventure, particularly into a potential conflict with a regional superpower that until recently has helped to fuel strong economic growth

Abe’s trip to Australia came in the wake of US Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson’s incendiary comments threatening to challenge China’s position in the South China Sea. In a confirmation hearing, Tillerson said that Trump’s administration would send China “a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” In the same remarks, the former ExxonMobil chief called on regional allies to “show backup.”

It is still unclear whether the Trump administration intends to follow-up the threat with action and how it would ask allies Australia and Japan to provide strategic support. A comprehensive Defense White Paper released last year stressed the importance of upholding a “rules-based order” and the centrality of US-style rules and norms in strategic affairs.

There is little public support in Australia for following a Trump-led US on any military adventure, particularly into a potential conflict with a regional superpower that until recently has helped to fuel strong economic growth.

They arguably already have. The Lowy Institute, a think tank, found in a poll conducted last year that 45% of Australians felt the country should “distance itself” from the US if Trump were elected. That popular sentiment could be reflected in a soon to be released separate Foreign Policy White Paper that will provide a comprehensive framework for Australia’s international relations for the next five to 10 years.

Turnbull’s government has requested public suggestions on the policy guidance. It seems even some opposition Labor Party members are reconsidering their long-held faith in the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) collective security treaty for a more Australia-first approach that includes greater emphasis on Asian rather than Western engagement.

Turnbull, now roiled by a political controversy at home over ministers’ entitlements, has not signaled a potential policy shift towards more Asian engagement, nor has he adopted the activist position Abe has taken to hedge against rising regional uncertainty. Turnbull was the second world leader to speak to the president-elect, but there have been no public announcements or Trump tweets since about Australia’s future role as a top US strategic ally.

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