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Election outcome should prompt alliance worries

By Peter Jennings

In the coming days Malcolm Turnbull will make a phone call to congratulate the next American president on winning a tough election.

Regardless of whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Turnbull’s talking points will be how close the two countries are, how strong our alliance is and how desperately we want to keep America involved in Asia.

Turnbull would certainly prefer to be calling Clinton because she’s a known quantity, backed Obama’s defence “pivot” to Asia and knows Australia well.

Apart from appearing in an advert for Australian socks in 2004, Trump knows us less well. But that’s no reason for Turnbull to not get on with him. Both are businessmen who know how to cut deals. At least that’s the start of a conversation. Turnbull’s phone call will play up the strength of the alliance. Trump complains that America’s NATO allies, as well as Japan and South Korea, free-ride on American defence spending.

The reality is that Australia gets a substantial security free ride from America too, but Turnbull can rightly say that Australia will spend 2 per cent of its gross national product on defence — higher than 22 of the 27 NATO countries. 

Our military role in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria has been substantial and sustained, and we are increasing our co-operation with the US Marines in the Northern Territory.

There is also an ambitious plan to expand our submarine and navy surface fleets, although it will take years to deliver. On paper, this new military kit is the right response to a more competitive and risky strategic outlook in Asia. 

None of this should be cause for complacency though. The reality is that our alliance relationship with the US needs more effort.

If Clinton is president, she will certainly have higher expectations of what the alliance should deliver. She was a strong supporter of expanding defence co-operation with the US Marines and air force in northern Australia. She will be disappointed to learn the expansion of the Marine presence has dragged for years and still has not reached the planned deployment of 2500 personnel. 

Turnbull’s challenge will be to assure the new president that Australia isn’t taking the alliance for granted. It’s not a promising sign that this year’s AUSMIN talks involving defence and foreign ministers have apparently been cancelled after a last-minute effort to hold a meeting on November 21 in Washington.

That followed the rather bizarre AUSMIN in October 2015, which talked up the importance of expanding naval co-operation but didn’t tell the US that the Northern Territory government had leased the port of Darwin to a Chinese company for 99 years.

That shocked the Americans and gave rise to worries that Australia was drifting in its commitment to the alliance.

This is hardly the time for America’s Asian allies to give Washington the sense that we are less interested in co-operation than they are. A passive approach to the alliance plays to a growing isolationist streak on both the Left and Right of American politics.

Turnbull’s first order of business should be to get the AUSMIN meeting rescheduled.

He should expect that either candidate will ask Australia to do more. An early American call could be for Australia to do a visible freedom of navigation exercise by sending a navy ship through contested parts of the South China Sea.

Given the volume of Australian trade that goes through the region, no country has a stronger interest than us to make sure the area doesn’t fall under Chinese sovereign control. The next US administration will likely take a harder line than Barack Obama.

We also shouldn’t be surprised if the US asks us to speed up our submarine and frigate building. Planning to deliver the 12th submarine sometime in the 2040s may make great industrial sense, but it doesn’t do much to deal with today’s regional instability. 

Whichever candidate wins the US election, its Australia’s job to sell the value of our alliance. The price of success will be that we will be asked to do more in our own defence and in support of America’s military role in Asia.

Peter Jennings is Executive Director of ASPI. 
Originally published: Herald Sun. 09 November 2016