The US, not China, is Australia's most difficult relationship
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The US, not China, is Australia's most difficult relationship

All the talk of “mateship” and ever “deepening ties” in relation to our alliance with the US tends to obscure the competitive nature of foreign policy. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The United States is Australia’s most challenging foreign relationship. This is not due to Donald Trump, or the disputed election. The same will be true if Joe Biden sits in the White House.

And no, the problems of dealing with China don’t yet come anywhere close.

That’s not to downplay the acute difficulties Canberra faces with Beijing, especially as exports of lobster spoil on the tarmac, the latest victim of sudden mysterious customs concerns, or while Australian citizens rot in prison subject to arbitrary spying charges.

But is critically important to recognise the special test involved in managing the US alliance. Be it under Trump or Biden, the next US administration will make even more demands of Australia as upheaval roils the world.

The drawn-out election result adds to the drama of an already exhausting year, but at a time when supposedly “shared values” are regularly invoked to justify foreign policy, the message at the ballot box is unmistakable.

Trump was still able to win close to half of US voters, despite four years of his irascible style and manifest failings in response to the coronavirus pandemic. His 2016 victory cannot be dismissed as a road bump. It must be recognised as a turning point.

Trumpism will not suddenly disappear. Even if Biden succeeds in his scramble for enough Electoral College votes and survives threatened legal action, the result hardly amounts to a punishing rejection of Trump’s worldview.

Australia will continue to be tested by how far it is willing to go along in support while privately holding on to faith the “adults” will eventually set matters straight. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coy response on Thursday instead of offering even a mild rebuke of Trump’s bullying and fact-free claims of widespread electoral fraud shows how “shared values” have become harder to argue.

Importantly – and this is where the challenge for Australia is most plain – the Trump years have also seen a hardening of American attitudes towards China, not only among Republicans but for Democrats, too.

Continue reading on the Australian Financial Review.

Daniel Flitton is editor of the Lowy Institute digital magazine, The Interpreter, and a former intelligence analyst.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy and politics; Australia’s intelligence services; international relations in Asia