Every four years there are wholesale shifts in the immense machinery of the US government. Even when a President is re-elected, hundreds of officials rotate in and out of the executive branch. If one does business with America, of whatever kind, these quadrennial games of musical chairs mean coming to terms with the new faces, personalities and practices of those with whom you work. When you depend on the US for your security, this is an especially important process
The transition to the Trump administration has been perhaps the most unorthodox in decades. The president has publicly denounced allies, lost a national security adviser 23 days in, and is being actively briefed against by officials in many parts of government. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has now stepped into this febrile atmosphere for her first meeting with senior figures of the new administration. Regardless of how the votes fell on 8 November, it would always have been important for the minister to go to Washington to continue the business of alliance management, particularly given the complexities of an increasingly contested Asia. Given the public embarrassment of Prime Minister Turnbull’s phone call with President Trump, the uncertainties caused by the gaps between what the President says (and tweets) and remarks from other cabinet level officials, as well as the obvious difficulties in the handover, Julie Bishop’s Washington trip is of more than usual significance.
The ostensible purpose of the meeting with Vice President Mike Pence is the business of alliance management. Discussion is likely to focus on three main issues: ISIS, the South China Sea and the DPRK.
Since coming to office, Trump has shown that he meant much of what he said on the campaign trail. Without doubt the most important foreign and security policy issue he flagged in the campaign was the conflict with Islamist terrorism and in particular his promise to defeat ISIS. And given Trump has selected Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond 'HR' McMaster as his new national security adviser who is best known for his experience in Iraq, ISIS is likely to be top of the security policy agenda. Observers have long anticipated that the more transactionally inclined Trump administration will expect its allies to do more, so expect coalition contingencies related to these issues to be discussed.
Earlier this week the US dispatched the 3rd Fleet’s carrier battle group to the South China Sea to conduct ‘routine patrols’. This is plainly an effort to signal the seriousness with which the US intends to approach the contested waters. The Trump administration is likely to be much more robust than its predecessor in its dealings with China, although it has walked this back somewhat recently, and there is considerable speculation that the battle group could conduct a FONOP. Bishop can expect discussion with her counterparts to focus on alignment of Canberra and Washington’s policy on the dispute and the US Navy operations in the region. There is a distinct possibility that US officials may increase pressure on Australia to participate in, or overtly support, such action. Australian officials will also be seeking clarity on the Trump administration’s broader approach to China and to gain a sense of whether the more bombastic ideas emanating from Peter Navarro, head of the new National Trade Council and White House senior counsel Steve Bannon are likely to prevail over the more mainstream views of Secretary of Defence James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Treasury Steven Mnuchin.
Once again North Korea is in the news. The James Bond-like killing of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother received widespread coverage but of greater policy import was the recent missile test, and what it might mean both for the DPRK’s missile capabilities and its broader regional role. Foreign Minister Bishop has just returned from Seoul where she met with senior officials and discussed precisely these issues. Expect Australia and Washington to discuss the latest North Korean provocation as well as what position they may take in relation to this destabilizing force over the longer term.
The other purpose of the visit is to build personal relationships between Canberra and the new administration. Bishop is widely admired for her energy, professionalism and capacity to develop effective working relationships. It is crucial for this to occur with the key principals in the new administration, most obviously with Tillerson, Pence and Mattis but also for her key advisers to develop ties to their equivalents.
But given how young the new administration is, and the uncertainties that abound due to its unorthodox style, there will be two other tasks for the minister and her staff. The first will be to get a sense of just how the machinery of government is working in Washington. With so much shrill reporting on the transition, it is unclear how the government is settling into the practical business of governing. The second, and perhaps more important job, is to get a sense of who will prevail in the contest for foreign and defence policy influence in the Trump administration. Certainly in the early days the President's personal aides, those of more ideological and disruptive mindset, were dominant with more moderate and mainstream figures seemingly peripheral. The question for Bishop, which only first-hand experience can help answer. is whether the ‘grown-ups’ will be in charge or whether the wild-eyed revolutionaries will remain at the centre of power. A great deal depends on this for Australia and indeed the world.
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