Testing times for US-Australia Pacific Alliance

Codified by the ANZUS Treaty, the Pacific security alliance between the United States and Australia dates back to the post-WWII global order.

However, with the election of US President Donald Trump, the relationship is now at a crossroads. The diplomatic architecture has shifted in a remarkably short space of time.

The previous Obama-Clinton “pivot” strategy showed a deep commitment to the Asia-Pacific, even if only to mitigate China’s influence in the region.

With the Trump team hell-bent on dismantling this legacy – from walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to enacting a trade war – we are witnessing unprecedented levels of bellicosity in an ongoing trend that swaps multilateralism for “America-first.”

But how will this play out for Australia?

Australia needs to delicately balance both its economic and security interests. China is by far its largest trading partner.

While Australia has received a temporary reprieve from tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum, and an escalation of more tit-for-tat measures by the US and China may benefit Australia’s exports in the short term, there is much to be concerned about.

Anti-China sentiment is on the rise in Australia.

Jingoistic rhetoric by politicians and the media regularly treat China as the whipping boy.

From populist calls for cuts in immigration and a hardening of the resident visa approval process, to deliberate misinformation on foreign property investment, and even stories of “daigou” (personal shoppers) limiting the supply of baby formula and vitamins, “Yellow Peril” is very much alive down under.

On the security front, successive cuts to the foreign aid budget are diminishing Australia’s diplomatic influence in the region; a vacuum China is more than willing to fill through its Belt and Road investment vehicle.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a moderating voice in what is a seemingly schizophrenic administration, often putting himself at odds with his boss in order to calm Asia-Pacific tensions.

But with Washington, DC’s revolving door of leadership, this too has been thrown into doubt.

Heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and disputed claims in the South China Sea are two potential flash points in the Asia-Pacific.

The latter’s proximity to Australia should be cause for serious concern, as one third of the world’s shipping passes through the area.

However, this seems to have calmed as of late. Despite the Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the matter, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has backed away from claims on the islands.

Though the traditional US ally also seems to be playing both sides of the field – receiving billions in investment infrastructure from China in recent times, while also accepting billions from Japan to fight its heavily criticized “war on drugs.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) recent suspension of its nuclear program and re-engagement with the Republic of Korea (ROK) is welcomed. Though, as Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s “we have seen this before” statement reflects, this is being viewed with a level of healthy cynicism.

Besides China, Japan and the ROK are two of Australia’s largest trading partners, so recent news of the deferment of the incoming US ambassador to Australia, Admiral Harry Harris, to the ROK, was met with disappointment.

Yet, this does show the Trump Administration’s seriousness in shoring up its diplomatic weight in upcoming talks.

Australia has signaled that it still wants to see US leadership in the region. However, with Trump indicating that the US will no longer play the stabilizing role in the Asia-Pacific, where should Australia turn?

As former Australian Prime Minister and architect of the APEC Leaders’ Summit Paul Keating often says, perhaps now is the time for Australia.

Article first published on CGTN.

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