Commentary | 01 February 2017

Calm down and we could well get the ‘Asian pivot’ that never was

Originally published in the Australian on 1 February 2017. 

Originally published in the Australian on 1 February 2017. 

Visceral dislike of Donald Trump by his many detractors has spawned an outbreak of alarmism that threatens to erode almost 70 years of bipartisanship on Australian foreign policy. Greens leader Richard Di Natale is the latest politician to question the value of close security ties with the US, urging the government to “junk” the alliance in retribution for Trump’s decision to prevent people from seven Muslim-majority countries entering the US.

The US President’s provocative rhetoric and combative style have understandably fuelled concerns about the direction of future US Asia policy. But they don’t justify intemperate calls for an immediate rethink of our relationship with Washington, or fevered speculation about the likelihood of a war between the US and China.

Channelling John Howard, former Australian ambassador to Washington Michael Thawley advised those “hyperventilating” about Trump’s rise to “have a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down for a bit”. Sound advice.

In matters of state, knee-jerk responses can have calamitous consequences. They should never be a substitute for careful consideration of known, rather than imagined, policy changes and a clear understanding of how they will be implemented.

We have only the sketchiest outline of Trump’s likely foreign policy and almost no operational details. That’s hardly surprising because Trump is a foreign policy neophyte who has yet to appoint the hundreds of advisers and officials who will be responsible for fleshing out his broad agenda.

We also don’t know who will be most influential on Asia, which is the critical region for us.

There are two other reasons for caution. Trump is a deal-maker, not a conviction politician. He has already reversed course on several key promises, most recently on NATO and the utility of torture, during his meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

As his presidency evolves, there will be pushback from constituencies and countries alienated by his agenda, forcing him to moderate his more contentious policies if he wants to cut a deal. The flexibility and opportunism he displayed in business will also drive his presidency and suggests a capacity to step back from his confrontational rhetoric.

Armageddon is not yet upon us.

For the moment, the smartest thing we can do is watch what Trump actually does and be less swayed by what he says. A bit of perspective wouldn’t hurt either.

Historically, there have been numerous bumps in the bilateral relationship, including major policy differences over Vietnam in the early 1970s which caused a serious rift between president Richard Nixon and prime minister Gough Whitlam. But the alliance survived and prospered because of multiple shared security interests, which are no less compelling today.

Disagreements between allies of long standing are seldom fatal. It is folly to think otherwise, particularly at this early stage of his ­presidency, despite Trump’s perfunctory and counterproductive withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his ignorance of the value the alliance system in Asia brings to the US.

Alarmists seem to assume that whatever Trump does will be bad news for Australia. This flies in the face of clear indications that Asia will be a high priority for the new administration.

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson and Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, a former naval officer, are both keen to put flesh on the emaciated remains of Barack Obama’s over-hyped and poorly resourced and implemented Asia pivot. Announced in Darwin with much fanfare, and endorsed by both Labor and the Coalition, the pivot was intended to be Obama’s signature Asian policy.

The view in the Trump camp is that the pivot failed because of a lack of supporting military muscle and Obama’s vacillation. It’s difficult to argue with this assessment given the long decline in US military capabilities and posture in the Pacific, aggravated by senseless congressionally mandated restrictions on defence spending, for which Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame.

If Trump makes good on his promise, beefing up military spending by half a trillion dollars over the coming decade will go a long way to restoring a military balance in the Pacific, which has tilted sharply towards China, ­allowing Beijing to pursue its destabilising territorial and strategic ambitions in the South China Sea.

A peace-through-strength policy, spearheaded by a rejuvenated US Navy, serves Australia’s interests far better than a weak, vacillating US and an unconstrained China. But we should also hedge our bets in case Trump doesn’t deliver on defence spending, or in the event he fatally ­undermines an alliance system that has been the bedrock of Australian defence and regional security since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951.

Unilaterally ditching the ­alliance or prematurely distancing ourselves from the US is not the answer. Far better to comprehensively engage with the Trump ­administration, shape his agenda by all available means and prepare sensible contingency plans to manage any Trump-induced disruptions in our Asian backyard.

In an uncertain world, building on the alliance, deepening ties with like-minded neighbours and strengthening defence self-reliance is the most effective risk-diversification strategy. These should be seen as reinforcing elements of an integrated defence and foreign policy, not mutually exclusive ­alternatives, as critics of the ­alliance simplistically assert.

Above all, what is required is some strategic ­patience, a virtue lacking in our political debates. This means no precipitate policy changes until a reasonable period of time has elapsed to properly evaluate the new administration. And it means playing the long game by thinking beyond the Trump presidency, which threatens to be “nasty, brutish and short”, to borrow from English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

If the Trumpian universe turns out to be as disastrous as alarmists fear, the self-correcting system called democracy will ensure his political castration long before his final demise and the probable emergence of an anti-Trump, which could pose a different set of challenges. In the meantime, we should exploit every opportunity to shape Trump’s Asia agenda in our own interests.