Ever since WW2, Australia’s foreign policy has been underscored by close military, diplomatic and economic ties with Washington, exemplified by ANZUS and the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. However, Australia’s US-centric foreign policy has never been without its detractors. With the election of Donald Trump, calls will grow for Australia to radically reappraise its foreign policy outlook. What changes, if any, will a Donald Trump presidency entail for Australian foreign policy?
An examination of the historical contexts suggests that Australia has received substantial benefits from its special relationship with the USA. ANZUS’s promise of mutual defence, as well as Australian access to classified US intelligence and high-tech military equipment have been the bedrocks of Australian security and stability. More broadly, Australian-US military cooperation and US access to Australian military and intelligence facilities has helped facilitate US engagement in the Asia-Pacific. In turn, this engagement has precluded the outbreak of regional arms races and conflict, thereby ensuring the prosperity of Australia and the region.
Yet, a Trump presidency has the potential to deeply exacerbate longstanding concerns over the viability of a US-aligned foreign policy. ANZUS has only been invoked once, but it’s no coincidence that since its inception in 1951, Australia has been meaningfully involved in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Trump’s bellicose temperament and inexperience, hawkish appointments, pledges to rapidly increase US military spending, as well as his postulated deployment of ground troops to Syria clearly raise the possibility that Australia will be involved in more conflicts.
Even if Australia is not involved in another war, it likely that Sino-Australian ties will suffer significantly if Australia continues to be one of the US’ closest allies. This is especially possible given that even under Obama, the nature of US-Australian ties have been viewed as threatening by Beijing. Trump has made it clear that he expects more from his allies, meaning that it’s conceivable that Australia would become involved in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. If Trump engages in a ‘trade-war’ with China, Beijing would not take kindly to a Canberra that continues to maintain close ties with Washington.
Given the risks of Trump's presidency for Australia’s regional standing, it’s not surprising that debate over the future of Australia’s relationship with the US has already arisen. In light of the risks posed by a Trump presidency, one option would be to opt for a more independent—‘Australia first’, if you will—foreign policy. Instead of relying on the USA, Australia could seek its security and prosperity through more concerted regional engagement.
An Australia that is viewed as being less pro-American would be able to significantly boost its ties with Beijing. For similar reasons, ASEAN would be more likely to accept the membership of a more independent Canberra. Certainly, there remains huge potential to deepen Canberra’s relatively shallow relationships with democratic and relatively secular governments in Jakarta and New Delhi.
With the TPP being unlikely to materialise under a Trump presidency, Australia’s membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and involvement in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations provide a salient reminder that Australia does not rely on US initiatives to guarantee its prosperity.
All things considered, it’s likely that Australia will weather the incoming storm without significantly recalibrating its foreign policy. A reorientation away from the US would endanger the integrity of ANZUS. Ironically, even though Trump’s actions may be responsible for increasing regional uncertainty, it’s because of this very uncertainty that Australia would be reluctant to endanger its cherished alliance.
Nor is it a politically prudent time to radically alter Australia’s foreign policy. Globally and indeed domestically with the return of One Nation, a sizeable number of constituents crave for certainty and the familiar. Any significant move towards Asia at the expense of US ties would involve more free trade and uncertainty, as well as posing an affront to Australia’s identity as a Western nation.
In this sense, Trump’s presidency probably won’t radically change Australian foreign policy. At the very least though, it will engender debate and remind Canberra of the perils of overreliance on any one power.
Henry Storey is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.