PERTH, Australia ― Perth, Australia is far from Washington. The view from here, as elsewhere, of this U.S. election season is one of bemusement, undercut by vague fear: what will it mean for Australia if Donald Trump is president? How will it affect relations with nations that both Canberra and Washington share important ties with?
Recently returned ambassador to the U.S. and longtime Australian politician Kim Beazley has some ideas, none of them very pleasant.
Australia is one of the United States’ few allies that has not publicly come under attack from Trump. Yet the U.S. Republican presidential nominee’s possible plans for Canberra’s friends in Asia, including new import regulations on China, could have a very serious impact on Australia’s security structure and economy.
Indeed, unnecessary U.S. economic confrontation with Beijing has Beazley worried.
A President Trump, “would trash basically the structure of alliance relationships and trade relationships in our immediate region,” he told Australian broadcaster the ABC in August. “That would affect in a major way some of our most important trading partners and it would destabilise enormously the relationship we have in the north part of Asia.”
Beazley, a former defense minister and deputy prime minister, returned to Australia 10 months ago, after six years in Washington as ambassador to the United States. He now works with the think tank Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia and is a distinguished fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The top Australian official has long been a supporter of the U.S.-Australia alliance, with a strong interest in U.S. politics. And since his return to Australia he has been one of Donald Trump’s staunchest critics in the country, outlining in speeches and many interviews and articles internationally, what a Trump presidency would mean for Australia and for the U.S.’ hard-worked-for “pivot” to Asia.
Donald Trump has not said much on Australia, save that he views the alliance favorably. But he has said nothing on the character and structure of the relationship, despite the fact that the U.S. stations troops in Darwin, Australia and partners with Australia in the fight against the so-called Islamic State in parts of the Middle East. In fact, Australia and the U.S. have just agreed to share the cost of the close to 1.5 billion dollars required to maintain the U.S. troops in Darwin, a posting China was not happy about given its relative proximity to the South China Sea. But a lack of knowledge isn’t what is keeping Trump from speaking, according to Beazley.
“I think if he sat down and got briefed on the character of the relationship between the two countries [The U.S. and Australia] he wouldn’t say anything then, either,” the former ambassador said in an interview with me.
[Trump's] 45 percent tariff could set off an economic crisis in China, leading to depressed, if any, demand for Australian commodities. Former Australian Defense Minister Kim Beazley
Trump has, however, mentioned two U.S. allies in Asia ― South Korea and Japan ― both of which he has suggested stopping U.S. military support to, a move that would change the dynamic of the region drastically. Japan and Australia also share a close relationship, one of the reasons that the nation was in the running to build Australia’s new submarine fleet; the interoperability with the U.S. would assist naval endeavors to the point where some were discussing a “trilateral alliance.”
Why Australia Should Worry About A President Trump’s Asia Actions
While recent U.S. elections have focused on the economic competition between the U.S. and China, the two countries have a deep level of cooperation in many areas, with work to combat climate change being one of the most recent and notable.
From his time in the United States, Ambassador Beazley sees this cooperation between the U.S and China as incredibly important for both the Americans and the Chinese, but also widely misunderstood.
“The most important meeting that would take place every year globally … for the Americans,” he said, “is the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. I think to the last one, when I was there in Washington, the Chinese sent 400 officials and they always come away with a 100 agreements. It’s a more complicated picture than is often understood in the Australian media here and [in] the U.S.”
But the importance of and complexities of this relationship extends far beyond these two nations.
From the Port of Darwin lease to the effects of Chinese buyers on the residential real estate market, donations to political parties, and even a recent deal between a large Australian media organization and a Chinese news organization, skepticism and paranoia over Chinese intentions and strength in Australia has grown. However, media and others tend to conflate one with another when realistically real estate and paid-for propaganda have little in common.
The Darwin port lease of 2015 annoyed the U.S. as Australia had not informed its ally it would be granting it to the Chinese company Landbridge, a large company with apparent government and military ties.
But Beazley said that the broader issue of Chinese influence in Australia is only gaining traction now in the U.S. capital.
“I think the Americans are alert to it. Probably more alert to it than they’ve been than the time when I was in Washington,” he said. “But they still assume Australia’s primary strategic commitment would be to its relationship with the U.S.”
Trump has also spoken of slapping massive tariffs on Chinese imports. In fact, he told the New York Times editorial board in January, “I would do a tax. And the tax, let me tell you what the tax should be … the tax should be 45 percent.” And a halt in U.S. purchases could mean China’s GDP drops up to 3 percent, according to CNBC quoting a Capital Economics report.
So what does America’s Asia policy have to do with Australia? Since China is Australia’s biggest export market, downturns in the Chinese economy can dramatically impact Australia. A spinning Chinese economy would have less need for Australian commodities, the Chinese demand for which is still a very large contributor to the economy. And a 45 percent tariff could set off an economic crisis in China, leading to depressed, if any, demand for Australian commodities. It would certainly not be importing them at the rate it is now.
So, were Trump to do what he says he’ll do on Chinese trade into the U.S., “there could be an extremely bad trade war which would [be] ruinous on the economies of the region,” said Beazley.
And with that trade war Australia would be caught in the crosshairs and Chinese demand for Australian commodities would slide, according to Beazley. Such an event, especially for an Australian banking on its “Asian Century,” would be disastrous.
Meanwhile any follow through on Trump’s threats to pull troops from parts of Asia ― like Korea and Japan ― would shock the the region and affect Australia, he added. Should such movement affect intelligence gathering abilities, Australia would also lose out.
The U.S., for its part, values Australia’s Southeast Asian ties and understanding, given the 'pivot' to Asia has largely been Southeast Asia-focused
Australia has strong ties across Southeast Asia, both economic and strategic ― such as the Five Power Defense Arrangements, a security agreement between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom. Beazley, who calls this security pact, “a quite little talked about but important military attachment,” said that it’s a focal point for Operation Gateway, meaning Australia’s troops are rotated through Malaysia’s Butterworth base. Operation Gateway is a surveillance operation in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
The U.S., for its part, values Australia’s Southeast Asian ties and understanding, given the “pivot” to Asia has largely been Southeast Asia-focused, Beazley said.
“We look to China through Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is our most important strategic zone,” he said. “So our point of reference for discussions we have to have on any aspect of our relationship with China always includes a discussion with calculation of interests of the Southeast Asian states … [the U.S.] recognize[s] that we are a deeply Southeast Asia engaged nation and that we have the oldest non-American defense lines operating in the region.”
A Trump Win Might Mean A Loss For Rule-Abiding Australia
Australia is not thought about much in the U.S., but in Australia, the United States and its relation to 21st century Australia is discussed often. However, there has been a certain amount of skepticism about the relationship’s value in some areas. Wars Australia may not have been involved in, such as Vietnam or Iraq, are one example. Another, such as that put forward by Australian scholar Hugh White is that Australia cannot balance its strategic partnership with the U.S. with its economic one with China forever without fallout. It has managed thus far even as China’s importance slows slightly.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser published a book attacking the alliance in 2014, “Dangerous Allies,” and formed a nascent political party, Renew Australia, whose platform focused on moving away from the U.S. to a closer engagement in Asia. The party has since dissolved. Fraser passed away in 2015, and held office from 1975 to 1983.
But while there is some hesitation, Australians more generally hold the alliance in good regard, especially if Hillary Clinton is elected U.S president. In 2016, a national poll done by the Lowy Institute found that Australians vastly prefer Hillary Clinton by 77 percent, but that 59 percent would not want Australia to join the U.S. in any military action were Trump elected (however keep in mind Barack Obama held similar numbers in previous polls).
However, another recent survey by the United States Study Centre at the University of Sydney found, “Australians are the most likely to use the term ‘competitors’ to describe the relationship between the United States and China (70 percent) and the least likely to use the label ‘partners.’” And, “Australians give slightly more negative ratings of Americans than they give to Chinese people, and provide the most consistently negative stereotypes of Americans relative to stereotypes of Chinese of any country in the data, other than China itself.”
From a governmental standpoint, there seems to be high level of support. No Australian leader or leader of the opposition has spoken against the alliance. When former Prime Minister Tony Abbott went to Washington, he promised U.S. President Barack Obama Australia’s strong support, and current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has spoken of the importance of the architecture of the region put in place by the United States.
This support comes in large part from the long standing relations between the two nations post World War II, an arrangement that Australia is keen to maintain. This year’s Australia’s Defence White Paper, or DWP, which outlines the annual security strategy of the country, focused on just that ― maintaining global treaties, alliances and a rule-based global order.
'There’s a sort of conceit in Australia that we could be brokers between the Chinese and the Americans.' Former Australian Defense Minister Kim Beazley
A large part of that relationship is the military cooperation between the two, Beazley said.
“What counts is the umbilical cord between our military capability and the United States,” he explained. “We do not have the capability to defend ourselves without the special access we get on a whole variety of military intelligence fronts. We cannot replicate that. And that’s totally understood in Canberra.”
It is not just, as the commentariat frames it, Beazley said, the “striking of attitudes.”
Aside from the rift over Darwin, Australia does not have much to offer the U.S. directly when it comes to China, Beazley admitted.
“There’s a sort of conceit in Australia that we could be brokers between the Chinese and the Americans. The American relationship with China is far deeper and more comprehensive than ours and you notice it very quickly when you get to Washington,” he said.
Australia’s policy calculations and discussion come through the lens of its interest in Southeast Asian states, Beazley added, while the U.S. understanding tends to be Confucianist.
A prime example of this is Australia’s involvement in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which came following Southeast Asian nations’ request for Australian involvement as a strong advocate for good norms and practices. The AIIB is China’s new development bank and something of an answer to the Asian Development Bank, which has been led by the Japanese, and the World Bank, which is run by the U.S.. The United States has worried that the new bank will change norms and values in the region.
But for the U.S., this difference of perspective in the region is what makes Australia an interesting and important ally.
Not much of the impacts of Trump’s policy relations to Asian countries and their impact on Australia is being reported stateside, where Australia instead occupies a warm but distant spot in the American heart.
“Well they do think about us, they think about us in a wholly friendly fashion except for the NRA…” Beazley said. “Everybody else has a very good disposition, but they don’t think deeply about Australia, no.”
Nor does Donald Trump ― and that lack of thought will be sorely felt by a close ally should he win in November.