That Queasy Feeling Down Under
SYDNEY — Donald Trump long ago named his ambassadors to the Bahamas (the political donor Doug Manchester) and the Vatican (the political spouse Callista Gingrich). So on a trip the other day to Canberra, I asked whether the American president had nominated an emissary to this important if sleepy capital.
Not yet, says Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute, a nonpartisan international policy think tank that is hosting me for the week. This isn’t completely unexpected given the pace of State Department bureaucracy. Still, he adds, more of a delay would begin to have the color of an insult.
A visit to the Australian War Memorial is a moving reminder that Australians have fought alongside Americans in nearly all of our wars over the past century: in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and — to this day — Afghanistan. More than 100,000 Aussies perished in these efforts, a staggering sacrifice for a country with less than 8 percent of America’s population.
So what’s the administration doing to cultivate the alliance?
On the surface it’s business as usual. The Australian and United States militaries train together; our spy agencies look at the same intelligence through the so-called Five Eyes arrangement. A 2005 free-trade agreement, which Trump hasn’t yet threatened to pull out of, generates a two-way channel worth north of $1 trillion. Harry Harris, the admiral who runs the United States Pacific Command, has also seen his name floated for the ambassador job. He’d be a smart choice.
But the appearance of normality masks deep unease. Australian security officials seem to have a pretty good read on Kim Jong-un’s mind-set; it’s his American counterpart whose instincts and motives they find baffling and worrisome.Continue reading the main story
Canberra also keeps a close eye on the Chinese and their growing encroachments in the region. Whether Trump has any serious interest in systematically resisting Beijing’s advances is much less clear. One nagging worry among officials here is that Trump won’t attend key regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines in November, mainly because he’ll find them boring.
If so, that would be another Trumpian signal — the first was Trump’s disastrous withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — that the United States is slowly checking itself out of the western Pacific. The North Korean crisis may dominate American attention, mostly because nuclear weapons are involved and Pyongyang can now threaten Seattle as well as Guam.
But the larger game is a struggle of influence against Beijing. Hugh White, a professor of strategy at the Australian National University, thinks it’s a game the Chinese are likely to win. They are of the region, after all, while Americans are not. In any potential confrontation, whether over Korea or Taiwan or the South China Sea, Americans would inevitably ask themselves: What’s the point? What are we doing over there? Why risk Los Angeles for Seoul or Taipei?
I’d like to think White is too pessimistic, but I’m not so sure.
White doesn’t mention it in our conversation, but Beijing has another advantage over the United States: a lack of scruple, whether it comes to political bribes, military threats or diplomatic subversion.
Australia’s scandal of the year concerns two Chinese-born property developers, both allegedly connected to the Chinese Communist party, who funneled more than $6 million dollars to Australian politicians of various parties. Senator Sam Dastyari, a rising star in the Australian Labor Party, was accused last year of mouthing the pro-Beijing line on the South China Sea dispute for fear of losing a six-figure donation.
Historically, America’s strategic advantage over China lay in our combination of reliability, likability and preponderant military and economic strength. We were friendly. We dealt squarely. We were the future.
But America’s naval mastery in Asia is increasingly in doubt. The United States withdrawal from the TPP creates a trade void for China to fill. As for square dealing, one of the reasons Trump’s truculent January phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so shocked Australians is that the American president appeared to renege on Barack Obama’s pledge to resettle 1,250 refugees held in Australian detention centers. It was only this week that the United States took in the first 54.
Australians know that Trump, too, shall pass. But an erratic American president can do a lot of damage in four or eight years. That goes especially for one who seems to think that the postwar liberal international order was just another sucker’s deal conducted at America’s expense, and whose transactional instincts allow little room for the claims of shared values, much less the memory of common battlefield graves.
In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the director of the Lowy Institute, Michael Fullilove, makes the point that Australia “needs to prosecute a larger foreign policy,” not least by drawing closer to Asia’s other democracies as “an important hedge against the dual hazards of a reckless China and a feckless United States.” That’s smart policy for Australia — and sad comment on how our friends see us in the age of Trump.Continue reading the main story