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Time to take America seriously if we want the alliance

By Peter Jennings

Australia’s collective response to Donald Trump’s Presidential election needs calmer analysis and less whimpering. His victory offers some hard truths about the inadequacies of Australian policy thinking on defence and on the risky direction of Asia’s security.

Do we have the intellect and gumption to handle these strategic challenges or will the chill wind of Trumpism blow through Canberra’s empty streets a few years from now?

Australia’s political and policy establishment needs to get its thinking straight over six home truths emerging from the Trump victory. There’s little point picking over the President elect’s sometimes contradictory campaign comments.  Just like in the movie The Castle, what got Trump elected was the ‘vibe of the thing.’ He channelled the mood of a grumpy America. What does this mood mean for Australia?

The first home truth for Canberra’s policy makers is that we don’t have a deep enough understanding about the complexities of American politics and policy-making. That’s why our establishment was surprised by the election result.  Sadly, watching West Wing doesn’t really substitute for real expertise about the US polity or for closer engagement with Washington.

The test of this proposition is that the only political machinery managing our alliance relationship is the annual AUSMIN dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers and their US counterparts.

This year’s AUSMIN has been cancelled – a parting gift from the Obama administration which has long had its Asia-Pacific bags packed. It’s not a promising sign about the alliance’s vitality. Even if AUSMIN has been held, no one should imagine that a six hour meeting and a pleasant lunch can really drive a lively strategic relationship.

The second home truth about Trump’s victory is that we cannot afford to be complacent. Many allies are free riding on Washington’s security commitments and Americans are fed up with that. Take for example Washington’s shock late in 2015 at not being told that the Port of Darwin – including facilities used by the US Marines – was about to be leased for 99 years to a Chinese company with Communist Party links.

Talks to finalise arrangements for larger US military visits to northern Australia have dragged for years, delaying the arrival of the planned 2,500 Marines. Secretary of Defence Dennis Richardson told a Senate Committee in October that ‘when it comes to money and trade, alliances do not exist. … The alliance is left at the front door when we go in and have those discussions.’

With Trump in the White House, Canberra would have a heart attack if senior American defence officials spoke about the alliance like that. We should treat the Americans as we want them to treat us. That means better communication and shouldering more of the region’s security burdens.

The price of continuing engagement in Asia will be that the allies do more for their own defence. What will the answer be if Trump asks Australia to join the US in a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea? Even more risky, what will we do if Trump ends US naval activity there?

The third home truth about Trump’s arrival is that the onus is on Australia to make the case for the alliance. As the smaller ally we think and worry more about the relationship than top US officials. The benefit is that we can shape alliance priorities.

Australia has a good alliance story to tell.  Americans respect that we make real contributions to military operations and will take the fight to our opponents. Trump may press us hard to lift defence spending. Quite apart from alliance demands, our deteriorating strategic environment means we need to revisit whether the plan to spend just above two per cent of GNP on defence from 2022 is enough for a credible military.

The fourth home truth coming from Trump’s victory is to highlight the Asia-Pacific’s increasingly risky security outlook. Since the release of the Defence White Paper nine months ago we have seen the dramatic speeding up of North Korean nuclear weapons and missile testing; the Philippines has bizarrely flipped closer to China’s orbit; and China and Russia continue to push the envelope of military brinksmanship with their neighbours.

Never will the region have wanted the continuity of America’s stabilising presence more. Enter Donald Trump, with a political platform that mixes promises of bigger defence spending, heavier demands of allies and uncertain commitments to Asia’s security.

The key message for Australia is that we must learn to operate in a much tougher neighbourhood. Planning to have the perfect force of 12 submarine in the late 2040s is of limited use when we risk sliding to a much more dangerous world in 2020.

Home truth number five is that we should think hard about what really want America to do in this tougher world. Of the US alliance Paul Keating says ‘It's time to cut the tag. It's time to get out of it.’ Oh really? By walking from the alliance, the ‘independent’ Australia Keating aspires to will have gutted its military forces and have the regional influence of a flatter and browner New Zealand.

Trump ran an ugly campaign, but undisciplined talk in Australia about ending the alliance or that there is a fundamental split in values and strategic outlook between Australia and the United States is absurd and undermines our position in the region. We should be less cavalier about pre-emptively dismissing our ultimate security guarantor.

Finally, that deep rumbling sound you hear is the tsunami of Trumpist populism leaving America’s west coast on its way to Australia. Our major political parties know it’s coming but so far have no solution. In part the answer is we need a harder realism in our defence and foreign policies and a willingness to stick by our core alliance even when the President is not as user friendly as some of his predecessors. 

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published: The Weekend Australian. 12 Nov 2016.

Originally published by: The Australian on 14 Nov 2016