The 2016 Defence White Paper elevated the importance of protecting “a rules based order” and backed this up with an unprecedented “peacetime” expansion in defence spending. It may be that Canberra, like other regional capitals, has been getting jittery about the depth of US engagement with our region. Buying joint strike fighters and submarines is one way of enhancing self-reliance while also demonstrating a commitment to the alliance.
This concern is not surprising given President Barack Obama’s seeming reluctance to project American military power abroad. When it comes to Asia, the Obama administration will be best remembered for being outmanoeuvred regionally and globally while presiding over China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. For all its power and global reach it will be seen to have focused on the “hot” wars in the Middle East at the expense of the new “cold war” in Asia.
This is nothing new, as there has been concern about keeping the US engaged every decade since the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia was seen as reaffirming that commitment, and the concentration of US naval forces in the region was read as a clear sign that the US-Australia alliance would be strengthened. It quickly became apparent, though, that the pivot was lacking in substance. The US response to China in the South China Sea dispute has only reinforced those concerns, and demonstrated just how shallow the diplomatic pivot was.
Donald Trump is about as different to Obama as one could be. We know very little about what Trump’s foreign policy will look like, and less about what it will mean for Australian foreign policy interests. What we do know is that Trump has prioritised standing up to China economically. The prospect of a trade war and increased tensions between the US and China is a worrying possibility. For all of Trump’s bombastic statements about China being to blame for America’s economic woes, once he’s in the Oval Office he could face significant obstacles to many of his policy prescriptions. It is unlikely that he would be able to impose high tariffs on Chinese imports without also severely hurting the US.
The constraints on international trade mean that he may come to quickly understand the value of other foreign policy tools to boost his economic interests. Despite his lack of focus on international security issues in the campaign, it may be that the new administration uses the South China Sea dispute to symbolise its differences with its predecessor and as leverage against the Chinese government.
If so, a more assertive (and aggressive) US would quickly change perceptions in regional capitals. It would never be publicly recognised that China’s gains may not be reversed, but if stability was restored and backed by US force, the region might get back to the “business of business”.
Trump has been highly critical of NATO, but supportive of the US alliance with Australia. If the US is to be more assertive in the region, Australia is a natural ally. It will be for our politicians to position Australia in a way that takes advantage of this opportunity. To date there has been pressure from within and outside government to undertake a freedom of navigation exercise in the South China Sea. We may see one soon.
The orthodox view has been that stability and predictability are what is needed most. Trump has ripped this approach apart, but it may not be against Australia’s interests. That said, strategic miscalculation is always just over the horizon, and we don’t yet know how China, or North Korea for that matter, is going to react.
A more muscular foreign policy in the region would carry definite risks. But it could also reassure allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea that America still has their interests at heart. It would send a clear signal to Beijing to tread carefully. Trump would gain a negotiating wedge with China, and Australia would gain what it craves most: a US engaged in maintaining the strategic stability of the region and the “rules based order”.
Long-standing US allies like Australia, as well as allies with long standing suspicion of China such as Japan and South Korea, are all looking for the US to reaffirm the nature of its commitment to the region. A more assertive US President might be just what’s needed to smooth the waves of discontent in Asia over the rise of China and its “revisionist” behaviour in the South China Sea. This means that for all the speculation about Trump’s foreign policy, Australia could be well placed to strengthen its relations with the US.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.