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Less Interference Abroad: Why Donald Trump's Foreign Policy May Actually Benefit Australia

Bill Cai

In a speech at the Centre of National Interest in Washington D.C. last week, the ever-exuberant Donald Trump laid out his foreign policy plans. Trump, who looks set to be Republican nominee following the withdrawal of Ted Cruz and John Kasich from the Presidential race, betrayed a hint of isolationist nostalgia as he delivered his speech. Criticising the overextension of American resources in its global commitments, Trump spoke of a lack of initiatives from America’s allies in shouldering their own security burdens. The New York billionaire further stressed that as President, foreign aggression will not be his ‘first instinct’, and that he would want the world to know that America ‘[does not] go abroad in search of enemies’. The popular reception of Trump’s claims to put ‘America First’, is a reflection of the public’s increasing frustration toward the country’s draining foreign entanglements.

These proposals of are naturally suggestive of a possible scaling back of American strategic presence, which compounds the anxiety of many Asian-Pacific leaders in the face of China’s rapid rise. Having always been dependent on American military support for its national security, how would Australia be affected were America to retreat from the region?

Whilst Trump complained of the lack of reciprocity in America’s defence commitment to Japan, the opposite has been true for Australia. Since the formation of ANZUS in 1951, Australia has received its fair share of burden as America’s principle ally. From Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia lost 905 servicemen accord the the Australia War Memorial, for causes that were marginal to its interests. Meanwhile, the U.S. provided only limited logistics support for Australia’s peacekeeping mission in East-Timor, which was arguably more important to Australia’s immediate security.

The current policy of ‘pivot to Asia’, led by the Obama-Clinton administration, demanded no less sacrifice from down under. Whilst the policy nominally aims to foster friendly U.S.- Asian diplomatic, developmental and economic relations, in reality it strives to create a Cold War-esque balance of power that serves to rival China’s expanding political and strategic influence in the region. Under this doctrine, Australia’s role is confined to that of a geopolitical pawn that serves as a forward operating base to project American influence.

A realistic assessment would reveal that Australia faces no immediate security threat. The possibility of Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest, albeit young, democracy, attacking Australia, remains highly unlikely. This makes America’s increasing military presence, including the stationing of 3,000 U.S. Marines, and nuclear capable B-1 bombers in Darwin, out of proportion. With little benefits, the American militarisation of Australia certainly carries significant risks. Indeed, joint military action with the U.S. would be the only cause of a Chinese retaliatory strike against Australia as repetitively warned by the Chinese foreign ministry. China has no logical reason to wage war against its 7th biggest trading partner, with annual transactions exceeding $136 billion. This a classic example of the security dilemma in which the source of protection becomes the source of threat itself. In case of a regional conflict involving China, the American ‘security’ not only offers no protection to either the political or the economic interests of Australia, but also restricts Australia’s freedom of action.

The last choice Australia needs would be between its vital economic relations with China and its defence ties with the U.S.. It is thus good news for Down Under that Trump pledges against actively committing U.S. military intervention unless ‘absolutely necessary’, in stark contrast to Clinton’s hawkish ideals. This will undoubtedly lower the risk of Australia being drawn into another conflict detrimental to its interests. Instead, Trump highlighted that states must ‘contribute toward the financial, political and human cost’ of their own defence, and that if not he is ‘prepared to let these countries defend themselves’. Though Trump’s endorsement of Japan and Korea acquiring nuclear weapons is highly contentious and perhaps not the wisest course of action, Trump’s underlying proposal that there must be regional solutions to regional problems is one to be taken seriously. As former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out, ‘geopolitical equilibrium in twenty-first century Asia has to be based more on a regionally self-sustaining and constructive approach to inter-state relations and less on regionally divisive military alliances with non-Asian powers’.

Trump’s emphasis on regional security can give rise to an independent Asia-Pacific dispute resolution mechanism, under which Australia will have opportunity to take up a leadership role. Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University proposed for an Asian ‘concert of power’ modelled after the Concert of Europe, which largely sustained European peace between 1815 to 1914. Under this system, Pacific powers would accept each other’s hierarchical status according to their relative powers, but draw defined boundaries to prevent one state from ever achieving hegemony; any disputes regarding borders and influence would be resolved through cooperative mediation. With extensive experience of peace-making in the Asia-Pacific, as shown in Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer’s involvement in the resolutions of the Cambodian and Papua New Guinea crises, Australia has a most suitable grasp of the political and cultural reality to lead the Asian peace process free of the Cold War legacy.

Trump further stressed the need to abandon America’s attempt to spread ‘universal values that not everyone shares’ through military intervention, but to encourage reforms based on the accomplishments of the western political system. This is indeed coherent with Australia’s ability to shape the political dynamic of the Asia-Pacific beyond its status quo through soft power. By facilitating free trade, Australia can be instrumental in improving economic prosperity, which reduces the possibility of conflicts over resources. By expanding education export, Australia can also actively promote regional integration. As students from China, India, Vietnam, South Korea and Thailand consist of over 51% of all international enrolments, Australia can broaden the region’s intercultural understanding, and inspire the next generation with its model of good governance.

The lesson of detenté taught us that political, commercial and cultural exchanges are most productive when there is mutual trust and relaxation of tension. This is not possible when Australia is perceived a mere extension of the American sphere of influence that seeks to usurp Asia-Pacific’s political autonomy. Thus, Trump’s spirit of making friends rather than enemies with China and Russia, through trade and economic negotiations, conducted in good faith rather military coercion, is in the interest of Australia, and is arguably worth celebrating.

Delivered with a touch less abrasiveness and applied with a touch more humility, the ‘Trump Doctrine’ is perhaps not so bad after all.