Wednesday, 11 January 2017

If it comes to US vs China, will Trump make Australia choose a side?

Militarily dependent on America but economically dependent on China, Australia could be the biggest loser in a coming trade war.

I'm in the middle of a three-week visit to Australia, currently on a flight to Brisbane after a fascinating week in Sydney. As I expected, as an American I have spent the week fielding confused and exasperated questions about Donald Trump.

The sentiments have largely echoed what I read in last month's 'Dear America, why did you let us down?' New York Times op-ed by Australian doctor Lisa Pryor. "You may not know us, the people beyond your borders, but we know you," she wrote. "And here we Australians are on the edge of Asia, a small and loyal ally of the United States, caught between our strategic alliance with you and our economic future with China. We feel worried, lucky — and alone."

Australians' focus on Trump, and what he means for the future of the Westen world, doesn't come as a surprise. This has been the predominant conversation I've had in Europe over the past two months as well. But what has been striking while talking to people in Sydney is that the anxieties they have expressed are so similar to those being felt by Europeans.

ANZAC no more? 

Much has been made of the dangerous moment Europe finds itself in as Trump threatens to walk away from NATO, the American military protectorate that is the bedrock of European defence. But Australians have their own version of NATO - ANZUS.

Like NATO, ANZUS started after World War II, as the Western European empires collapsed and Russia and America remained as the last men standing. Having been abandoned by the British during the war, the United States stepped in to guarantee Australian defence. It worked - Japan never attacked the Australian mainland after the bombing of Darwin.

After the war, the Americans stuck around. Australians were more than happy to let them do so - knowing they could not defend their enormous continent on their own. 

Today, the Americans have military bases throughout Australia. This protection came with a price. Washington demanded that Australia participate in the Vietnam war, a sacrifice most Americans are unaware of. Australia was used as a staging ground for US troops headed to Vietnam, resulting in many Australian-American babies during the 1960s.

Trump campaigned on an 'America first', isolationist ticket. The US cannot be the world's policeman, he insisted, saying the US should not automatically honor its mutual defence treaty obligations if a European member of NATO were to be attacked by Russia. It is not unreasonable, therefor, for Australians to assume that the same would be true if an ANZUS country were to be attacked - perhaps by China.

The end of the Pax Americana

Like Europeans, Australians are aware that the United States isn't just any other country for them. They know they are part of a grand Western alliance in which the most important person for their security is not the Australian prime minister but rather the US president. That is why they watched the US election with such wrapped attention - and with such horror as they witnessed its result. One Australian friend said watching the results unfold live on TV at his office that day felt the same as when he was watching 9/11 unfold. It's not the first time I've heard that sentiment expressed.

On November 8, the American-led global order came to an end. Nobody knows what the new era is going to look like. Australians didn't get a vote on that day, but the result of that election will affect them profoundly. "I was not raised in America, but I was raised in the American century," observed the Australian doctor. "It feels as if we’re mourning the death of an idea called America."

Choosing a side

What is most worrying for Australians is this burning question: if this new era brings conflict between America and China, as seems entirely likely given the new president's rhetoric, what will happen to Australia?

Australia is military dependent on America, but economically dependent on China. The mining boom of the past 15 years has meant that Australia is providing the raw material for China's explosive growth. The Chinese appetite seems insatiable, and that appetite enabled Australia to weather the economic crisis of 2008 unscathed. Without Chinese investment, Australia would be in big trouble.

It now seems certain that the United States is headed for a trade war with China, and it is not inconceivable that this could turn into an actual war. What would happen to Australia if this occurs?

An assessment released in early 2016 by Australia's Department of Defence noted that the relationship between the US and China constitutes the most strategically important factor in Australian geopolitics. 

“The governments of both countries have publicly committed to a constructive relationship and it is not in the interests of either country to see an unstable international environment in which the free and open movement of trade and investment is compromised,” the assessment concluded. Obviously everything about this assessment is about to change.

What would Australia do if President Trump forces the country to take a side? If Trump commanded Australia to either stop trading with China or lose its American military protection, which would it choose? This is the question that has been occupying public debate in Australia the past two months.

It's not an outrageous thing to suggest may occur. The United States was able to force Japan, another American military protectorate, to economically sabotage itself by devaluing its currency during the 'Japanese fear' that engulfed the United States in the 1980s. The US has often used its military might to achieve its economic ends, through pressuring its military dependencies.

The Australian anxiety about losing US protection is also not a new phenomenon. Yesterday I was at the Australian Maritime Museum and saw this interesting newspaper front page from 1958. The intention was to display the article at the top about a Japanese war bride coming to live in Melbourne, but it was the main headline that caught my eye: "Would U.S. AID US?" it asked. There has always been a fear that the US would walk away from its commitment to protect Australia. But never before has that fear been so close to becoming reality.

If Australia were forced to make the choice, it's not at all clear which side it would choose. Australians are increasingly seeing the country's future as firmly rooted in Asia rather than oriented toward Europe or America. A survey of Australians by the Lowy Institute for International Policy conducted two years ago found that, asked whether the US or China was the more important partner for Australia, the US took the lead by 11%. In 2016 the survey was conducted again, and this time the US and China tied. Almost half of respondents said that if Trump were elected president, Australia should distance itself from America.

Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating (no relation) endorsed such a plan for distancing last month, when he told Australian media, "This society of ours is a better society than the United States." He called for Australia to proactively distance itself from the US, in light of the Trump victory, rather than just waiting to see what Trump has in store for them. 


Of course, given that the Australian military alone would find it difficult to defend the continent in the event of a Chinese invasion, Mr Keating's strategy of distancing requires a certain level of trust in the Chinese.

So these are the things on the minds of people in Australia thinking about the country's future. These are questions that have been being asked for several years, as people could feel the approaching end of the American century and many opined that Australia should look to a more Asia-facing future. But with the election of Trump, those questions now have to be answered much sooner than people here were prepared for. 

Like Europeans, Australians were not ready yet for the sudden change. They were expecting the transition out of the American century to be more gradual.

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