President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have pitched distinctive visions for the position of the US in the global geopolitical arena. Closer to home, the most important issue is how a second-term President Trump, or a President Biden will impact US-Australian relations and the firmly engrained bilateral partnership. The implications of either candidate for Australia’s interests are profound, spanning issues such as the freedom and sovereignty of the Indo-Pacific, relations with China, and the role of multilateralism in global politics.
A second-term Trump Administration
While concern initially arose after President Trump’s removal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, US-Australian relations have witnessed relative stability and strength under President Trump. This stands in contrast to other traditional US partners. During the last four years, President Trump has undoubtably shifted America’s traditional positions on many engrained partnerships and alliances, such as with Germany. Yet, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the US-Australian partnership as an “unbreakable alliance”, with both states continuing to demonstrate their shared interests in the Indo-Pacific by supporting ‘Freedom of Navigation’ patrols in the South China Sea. Both the US and Australian joint naval forces have regularly conducted exercises in disputed waters where China continues to engage in a mass manmade island-building and militarisation programme. Secretary Pompeo has commended Australia in its opposition to Chinese activities as “standing up for democratic values and the rule of law”. A second-term Trump Administration would expect to see the continuation of this shared vision in the Indo-Pacific of protecting freedom and sovereignty in the region.
Similarly, both Canberra and Washington have recently witnessed an unsteady and volatile relationship with Beijing over the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s handling of its initial spread. In May 2020, Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this call has garnered major international support, it received major backlash from Beijing, with China’s Ambassador to Australia seemingly threatening a possible boycott of Australian goods by the Chinese public. Such geopolitical and economic tensions between Australia and China may forge only a deepening partnership between the US and Australia under a second-term Trump Administration.
Despite these areas of common ground, vast issues remain at large between the two powers on tackling challenges in the international political arena. While Australia continues to commit itself towards supporting multilateralism and strengthening international institutions, a second-term President Trump may continue his current approach of contempt and mistrust of global political forums. The US has halted funding and committed to withdrawing membership from the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as subsequently withdrawing from the WHO’s global effort in developing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine. Foreign Minister Payne has confirmed the challenges of such diverging views, noting at the 2020 AUSMIN talks in Washington, "[we] do often hold common positions with the US, […] [we] don’t agree on everything though".
A Biden Administration
In contrast, the Biden campaign has presented a starkly different vision for the US on the world stage. Highlighted by the campaign’s main slogan of a ‘return to decency’, the campaign seeks to appeal to anxious voters ‘desire for calm over Trumpian chaos’.
In a piece to Foreign Affairs Magazine, Biden pursued his vision for his administration to rapidly return to an Obama-era style of diplomacy. This is expected to prioritise traditional American values of multilateralism and openness in foreign affairs, while re-committing the US to its traditional American partners. In particular, Biden has committed within his first year in office to organise a “Global Summit for Democracy”, in which traditional American allies and world democracies may “forge a common agenda”. The return of the US to supporting fundamental principles of multilateralism and re-committing to its traditional allies may invigorate an already steadfast US-Australian relations, encouraging further cooperation across multiple fields of interests. Australia as an advocate of the rules-based international order may receive a further bounce in support from a Biden Administration in the fight against COVID-19. Biden has vowed to reverse the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the WHO, tackling the COVID-19 pandemic through a multilateral lens.
A US under President Biden however may see an unaltered trajectory when it comes to US-Australian activities in the Indo-Pacific and the US’ relationship with China. The DNC 2020 platform has pledged to “work to strengthen ties with and between our key allies in the [Indo-Pacific] region, including […] Australia”. Biden has also expressed major contempt for Chinese actions in the geopolitical arena and may continue forward with the Trump-era hard-line approach towards China. Dean Cheng a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation think-tank, sums up a Biden Administration as being “less overtly antagonistic, but the substance might not change very much”. It seems the US and Australia are likely to continue heading down the challenging path of navigating an increasingly militarised South China Sea, by continuing Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea, and continued US engagement in the region through troops on Australian soil.
Despite the contrasts between each candidates’ vision in the international geopolitical arena, US-Australian relations are projected to remain steadfast and strong. As a positive for Australia, both candidates have confirmed themselves as standing alongside Australia as a friend and strong partner of the US for the years to come, in spite of the potential challenges of the near future.
Damian Privitera is studying a Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) at RMIT University in Melbourne.