Australia is perhaps the ideal incubator for ideas, invectives, and occasionally, idiocies regarding a foreign policy challenge facing many if not most states today—how to navigate the disruptive transition occasioned by America’s decline and China’s rise. Relatively secure in its geographic isolation, with insufficient material capabilities either to look after itself or tip the global balance of power, but with genuine interests in how events unfold within and beyond its backyard, policymakers and pundits in particular have been free to loudly and loquaciously wring their hands with concern at the invidious foreign policy tradeoffs Australia faces. This debate, opened and eloquently prosecuted for most of the 2010s by former senior defense official and now Australian National University Professor Hugh White,1 provides a detailed and at times surprisingly candid insight into how open societies struggle with this dilemma. The unexpected election of Donald Trump merely frothed the already turbulent waters of this maturing debate, but also raised the prospect that policymakers might, finally, face some hard choices in the near future—choices that politicians have consistently claimed Australia would not need to make for a long time.

Australian foreign policy has long been underpinned by three broad objectives: commitment to the US alliance, active regional engagement in Asia, and promotion of and participation within the global rules-based order.2 By all accounts, these three pillars are certain to be reflected in Australia’s first foreign policy white paper in 13 years due to be released in the latter part of 2017, which will outline how the country can safeguard its national interest in what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has recently described as a “brave new world,” one in part heralded by Trump’s election.3 

Pillar One: Commitment to the US Alliance  

In a speech before the nation’s 113 heads of diplomatic missions—whom, in an unprecedented move, were temporarily recalled to Canberra in March to contribute to the white paper drafting process—Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated these three “core tenets that guide Australia’s foreign policy.”4 As is usually the case, the first pillar listed by the foreign minister was the US alliance, which remains “fundamental to [Australia’s] economic and strategic security.”5 The tendency to list the alliance first reflects a long-standing theme in Australian foreign and security policy: the need for what former Prime Minister Robert Menzies sincerely described as “great and powerful friends.”6 This requirement was born out of the concern felt by governments that Australia’s vast geographic size and small population—combined with the fact that it was located far away from its “Anglosphere” brethren and surrounded by vastly different and unfamiliar neighbors—left its security in a precarious position.7 As such, alliance management has been central since the early days of Federation, with governments looking first to Great Britain and later to the United States as the effective guarantors of Australia’s national security.

Asymmetric alliances—those between a powerful state and a weaker protégé—are bargains in which the powerful state provides security in exchange for the protégé sacrificing a degree of policy autonomy.8 The US-Australia alliance, codified in the 1951 ANZUS Treaty, is such a bargain. In exchange for the security benefits provided by close partnership with the unparalleled military capabilities of the United States, Canberra (much more often than not) tends to accommodate Washington’s policy preferences. In a webpage titled the “First 100 years of Mateship,” the Australian embassy in Washington reminds that Aussies have unfailingly fought alongside their American “mates” in every major conflict since the Great War.9

The primary challenge for policymakers in maintaining the alliance bargain is navigating what scholars of alliance politics cast as the twin risks of abandonment and entrapment—the former referring to the possibility that a partner will fail to make good on its alliance commitments when a state is confronted with a threat, and the latter to the chance that a partner will drag a state into a conflict in which it does not, or only partially, shares an interest.10 Typically fears of abandonment are felt by protégés and fears of entrapment by more powerful states; however, recent promising research correctly identifies the possibility that weaker states may fear both risks equally.11 Thus, the first question one must ask about the impact of President Trump on the first pillar of Australian foreign policy is whether Canberra’s calculations about these risks have changed and, if so, what is being or can be done in response.

As foreshadowed earlier, the fear of abandonment has been a long-standing feature of Australian strategic thinking since European settlement. An authoritative review of Australian foreign policy since the Second World War recently published by former diplomat and intelligence chief Allan Gyngell concludes that fear has been the central “motivating force of Australia’s international engagement,”12 and many Australian experts continue to underline that the possibility of abandonment by the United States should be of greatest concern to Canberra.13 As such, it is no surprise that Trump’s foreign policy statements are generating some anxiety amongst Australian policymakers. 

Trump appears to be personally less engaged with foreign policy than his predecessors, and his worldview is less supportive of an active role for the United States abroad. Indeed, his avowed preferences for unilateralism and nationalism over multilateralism and internationalism raise the specter of what has been described as “isolationism on speed” by former Australian deputy prime minister and recent ambassador to Washington, Kim Beazley.14 Moreover, Trump has regularly questioned the utility of US alliances and made clear that he views American security guarantees as contingent on allies “paying their bills.” Unlike Japan or NATO, Australia was not explicitly called out by the president; however, many in Australia recalled when then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage noted that Canberra was at risk of becoming a “free-rider” when defense spending was cut to 1.6 per cent of GDP by the Rudd-Gillard governments of 2007-2013.15

Concerns about an increased risk of abandonment have eased somewhat as Trump has settled into his presidency. The president has not definitively stepped away from any alliances, and when pushed (and pushed) he has ultimately reaffirmed US security commitments. Furthermore, with the current government having committed to keep defense spending at 2 per cent for the next decade, Australian leaders are confident that “we pull our weight.”16 Despite the uncertainties generated by the infamous telephone conversation between Trump and Australian “President” Malcolm “Trumbull” in February 2017, when the two leaders met aboard the USS Intrepid in New York two months later, the American president openly affirmed “the vital importance of our relationship and our alliance.”17 

Nevertheless, fears of abandonment may linger because some view the United States under Trump as a partner of diminished credibility. For the first time since the alliance was formed, Canberra must deal with an administration whose commitment to shared values, which have historically been “the building blocks of trust,” may not be absolute.18 Furthermore, as Stephen Walt notes, alliances often dissolve when members question the genuineness of their partner’s commitment to providing assistance.19 The fact that Trump espouses a transactional worldview means that he is more likely to act only when he perceives it is in his interest to do so, rather than to simply preserve the United States’ reputation. As such, while concerns about abandonment are not acute, they are greater now in the absence of a US president with a clear commitment to upholding the liberal, rules-based international order and the US leadership in it.

Australia also fears entrapment, apprehending a now higher risk of being drawn into new conflicts alongside the United States due to miscalculation, hubris, or outright incompetence by the current commander-in-chief. Such concerns have been most prominent with regard to the prospect of Trump pursuing escalatory policies vis-à-vis China and North Korea. Australian commentators decried Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s suggestion that the US might deny China access to its South China Sea bases, and Trump’s proposal that Washington might abandon the ‘one China’ policy in their dealings with Taiwan, as “rookie blunders” that would increase the prospect of a Sino‑American conflict.20 

Similarly, Trump’s proposition that “all options are on the table” when dealing with North Korea—and threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—inspired lively debate amongst senior Australian politicians about the increased risk of Canberra being “dragged into a conflict” on the Korean Peninsula by Washington.21  Such concerns intensified when Pyongyang proceeded to identify Australia as a potential target for future nuclear strikes if it were to continue “blindly and zealously toeing the US line”.22 To the extent that Washington is almost certain to ask Canberra for support in any such contingency, the greater risk of these conflicts under a more aggressive and/or erratic Trump has generated genuine concern about entrapment in Australia.

With heightened fears of both abandonment and entrapment, the question then becomes whether and how Canberra can mitigate those risks. Here alliance scholarship offers few answers for protégé states because they operate under such significant structural constraints—too weak to go at it alone, and usually unwilling to align (‘bandwagon’) with the source of the security threat.23  Excluding such extreme options, Canberra has at least three options. 

The first is to distance itself from Washington, scaling back alliance cooperation and forging a more independent foreign policy. This option has been advocated by a variety of figures across Australia’s political and academic landscape. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, for example, has called for Australia to “cut the tag” with Washington and begin to “make our way in Asia ourselves.”24 Hugh White, too, believes it is “stark folly” to leave Australia’s future in Trump’s hands, and has advocated for Australia to take fresh steps towards securing its own place in Asia that does not rely on US support.25 

However, seeking greater distance from Washington would almost certainly require foregoing significant benefits that Australia currently enjoys from the alliance. As Nick Bisley expertly demonstrated in a 2013 piece, there was good reason then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the alliance as one “for all the years to come.”26 First, while the text of the ANZUS Treaty does not create a concrete obligation to provide military assistance if either party were attacked, the commitment nevertheless sends a strong signal of shared security interests and thus at least offers strong deterrent value.27  Practically, the alliance provides Australia privileged access to sophisticated military technology and training, high quality intelligence, and a degree of policy access in Washington. Moreover, pulling up anchor at a time when the waters are more turbulent than ever would have significant downsides for Australia—not only would Canberra lose influence, preliminary estimates also suggest Australia would have to increase defense spending to 3-4 per cent of its GDP.28 

The second option is to embrace a Trumpian America more tightly, probably by bearing gifts and indulging the personal idiosyncrasies of the (great) man himself.  Shades of this strategy can be seen in the approach of Japan and its Prime Minister Abe Shinzo—the first world leader to meet with Trump after his election win, backing this up with a suite of concessions (including a $150 billion economic package) during a subsequent visit where he golfed with the president at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.29 

Yet this option is somewhat more difficult for Australia. Alliance management requires both the commitment of decision-makers and policy elites, and the support (or at least acquiescence) of the general public. Unlike in Tokyo where there appears to be a tangible consensus among elite circles that a ‘doubling-down’ on the US alliance is necessary to offset a variety of risks and secure certain opportunities,30 the distaste for Trump among the Canberra establishment is palpable: a leaked recording revealed Turnbull imitating Trump before a laughing audience,31 and other members of the political elite have variously described him as “barking mad,” “repulsive,” and the most “psychologically ill-equipped president in US history.”32 Moreover, such views appear to be shared by the Australian public. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute revealed Trump causes 60 per cent of Australians to have an unfavorable opinion of the United States,33 and the latest Pew data reveal that only 29 per cent of Australians have confidence in Trump, down from 86 per cent in the final year of Obama’s presidency.34

Ultimately the first two options—distancing and embracing—both appear unpalatable. Not only do they entail significant practical costs, they involve committing to a judgment (and its attendant risks) regarding whether entrapment or abandonment is the greater concern, when the evidence to date is not conclusive. The third option, then, is for Australia to take a middle ground, essentially muddling through and doing its utmost to avoid making a clear choice during Trump’s presidency. As beige as this option sounds, it is the least unappealing strategic play and an approach in which Australian policymakers have some experience. Indeed, the history of Australian foreign policy—in the words of Alan Gyngell—has often looked “like a chronicle of efforts to avoid unwanted choices.”35 Fortunately, Canberra appears still to have the strategic space to maintain this approach.

As with many aspects of Trump’s foreign policy, activity by those below the head of state himself has been positive. Vice President Mike Pence, Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have all visited Australia and variously sought to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the alliance. Pence underlined the “strong ties in both our security and our prosperity,”36 and Tillerson confirmed that Australia is seen to be “punching above its weight” during the annual 2+2 ministerial consultations in June.37  Other prominent voices within the Washington establishment have also spoken up in defense of the alliance: Senator John McCain has expressed his “unwavering support” for the partnership, a group of senators introduced a bipartisan motion “committing to an enduring alliance and support for continued diplomatic, military and economic co-operation,”38 and The Friends of Australia Congressional Caucus—originally formed in 2003 to facilitate negotiation of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement—has been recently reestablished with a view to showing “that Australia will always have partners and friends in the US Congress.”39

In addition to strong support from Washington, deep operational ties provide additional ballast.40 While some have noted that there is room for greater political institutionalization (à la NATO),41 there is no question that the cooperation that has emerged out of the alliance framework—such as the development of joint facilities, extensive embedding of Australian Defence Force personnel within the US military, regular rotation of US marines through bases in northern Australia, high-level intelligence sharing, and significant investment in US military technology systems—serve to align the two states’ interests more closely, bolster interoperability and build dense networks at the individual level, thereby buttressing the underlying security commitment in a positive feedback loop. Accordingly, with robust political support for the alliance in Washington and no evidence of any substantive strategic reorientation being sought by Trump, holding the line (if occasionally one’s nose) might not only be the least-unpalatable option from a political standpoint, but also the optimal strategy.

When it comes to the first pillar of Australian foreign policy, therefore, the status quo remains the most likely medium-term equilibrium. Nevertheless, that is not to say that the new president has had no impact on Australian policymaking vis-à-vis the alliance. Despite an expectation that Trump will request that Australia join US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and advocacy from national commentators that Canberra accept,42 Australia did not participate in either of the first two operations that occurred in May and July. While this outcome may have been the same had Hilary Clinton been president, one cannot discount the possibility that distaste for Trump is further reducing enthusiasm for the risk that FONOPs present. 

More recently, Australia’s decision to unilaterally suspend air operations over Syria for 48 hours after Russia warned it would view coalition aircraft as potential “targets” following the shooting down of a Syrian jet by US forces also raises questions.43  While the counterfactual is unknowable and Australia’s tactical military operations have not always marched in lockstep with the United States, one wonders whether this would have happened under presidents Obama or Bush, when decision-makers would have been more confident that risky tactical operations were nevertheless part of a well-considered and coherent military strategy. Finally, to the extent that Trump’s behavior continues to be erratic and uncouth, alliance skeptics in the public sphere have abundant ammunition to continue their campaign to shift long-term public opinion.

Pillar Two: Regional Engagement

Any impact on the regional engagement pillar is best interrogated by assessing how the new president has affected Australian policymaking primarily vis-à-vis China,44 but also other major regional partners. Should Australia’s engagement toward China change in light of Trump? This is not a straightforward question since it is already in Canberra’s interest to maximize engagement with Beijing, both as Australia’s largest trading partner and as the most significant regional actor. Doing more, and making a decisive “pivot” in Beijing’s direction would mean accommodating China’s interests on one or more contentious issues in which Australia’s largest trading partner is at odds with Australia’s security provider—the United States. Almost by definition, such a move would not be risk free.

An economic pivot might be less disruptive, not least because Trump abdicated any remaining regional economic leadership by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would not be surprising if Canberra sought to concentrate its negotiation efforts on finalizing the Beijing-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) at the expense of the so-called Trans-Pacific Pact-11 (TPP-11), though lately Canberra has been trying to strike a balance between the two.45 

Matters become more complicated when economic issues are imbued with security externalities. For example, Beijing has long sought greater investment access to Australian infrastructure. In 2015, US officials were “stunned” to discover that the government of Australia’s Northern Territory had signed a 99-year lease for the Port of Darwin with Landbridge—a private Chinese company reported to have close ties with the Chinese government—without consulting Washington.46 Given the proximity of the port to joint US and Australian military facilities, concerns arose that the lease could enable Chinese intelligence collection. Allowing Chinese interests access to assets perceived to have national security ramifications, or forming part of Australia’s critical infrastructure, would suggest a level of comfort with Chinese investment, and China, not shared by Washington. Conceding to Beijing’s repeated requests that Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board treat investments by Chinese state‑owned enterprises the same as those by private enterprises would also fall into this category.47

On the traditional security front, a shift towards China on an issue perceived to be zero-sum would send a stronger signal, even if the alliance were not directly implicated.48 Australia could adopt a more China-friendly approach to the South China Sea dispute, for example, supporting Beijing’s efforts to focus exclusively on code of conduct negotiations, or rejecting requests by the United States or other regional allies (should they come) to participate in freedom of navigation operations. Another option would be to heed the advice of certain commentators and decline participation in a revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a security grouping with India, Japan, and the United States that Beijing perceives as part of a wider US-led containment strategy.49

However, the costs and risks associated with such policy shifts are real.  Closer ties with China are complicated by a variety of scandals that have emerged in the past 12 months regarding allegations of espionage, Beijing exercising “unreasonable” influence over Australian Chinese communities and Chinese language media, and China-linked donations seeking to secure greater access to and influence over Australian political processes.50  Furthermore, the “China Choice” debate in Australia is maturing. It is no longer simply about balancing economics and security interests, or auguring the rise and decline of great powers; instead, there is now a deeper recognition that accommodating China, on some level, inevitably leads to stronger acquiescence towards the principles, practices, and values found in China’s approach to governance, political economy, and international relations.

Commentators are increasingly drawing attention to the fact that a variety of activities undertaken by the Chinese state in particular—such as the regulation of political and judicial activity, controls on the flow of information into and within China, and active promotion of the party line news media, education, and popular culture—are starkly at odds with many of the basic values and institutions held dear within Australia’s open society.51 Such views raise concerns among elites and the public, and were certainly reflected in an unusually blunt speech by Bishop to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Explicitly identifying China, Bishop told the audience:

“While it is appropriate for different states to discover their own pathway leading toward political reform, history shows that embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability.”52

In addition to the obstacles posed by the so-called values gap, it remains the case that Australia is very concerned about the direction China’s regional leadership is taking in certain security-related areas. The Australian public is increasingly recognizing China’s widely reported assertiveness, with recent polling data revealing a seven point increase since 2015 in the percentage of Australians that think that China will likely become a military threat in the next 20 years: almost half the population, at 46 per cent.53 Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, Turnbull channeled these concerns when he spoke frankly of the need for “cooperation not unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarize disputed areas,” and warned that China’s neighbors would “look to counterweight Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States” in the event that Beijing impinged upon their autonomy or strategic space.54 

It is ever apparent that the world did not remain static when Trump was elected. If China was given the opportunity to lead by that surprising outcome, it has only partially embraced it. For every positive step forward that Beijing has taken towards becoming a “responsible stakeholder”—be that President Xi Jinping’s staunch defense of free trade and open markets at the World Economic Forum in Davos, or stepping up to lead the fight against climate change—it seems that some other decision or act has served to undermine its leadership credentials. For example, Australians viewed Chinese efforts to use economic coercion to deter South Korea from deploying US missile defense systems as a warning to all of the potential costs of losing economic ties with Beijing.55 In addition, Australian government officials expressed shock at the decision of a Chinese delegation to loudly protest the attendance of a Taiwanese delegation at an international conference on conflict diamonds hosted in Perth.56 Such actions ensure that Australians remain ambivalent towards—and perhaps somewhat fearful of—the prospect of Chinese global leadership.  In this light, the Canberra’s response to Trump is not jumping into bed with China.

Looking beyond China, the uncertainty and unpredictability introduced by Trump’s election has inspired advocates of Australia diversifying its defense and security relations with other major partners in the region.57  The logic of diversification would see Australia pursuing a dual strategy of fostering continued US leadership by bolstering cooperation with Washington’s allies, while also taking precautions against the possibility of US retrenchment through strengthening new partnerships and taking a more active leadership role in contributing to regional stability. Indeed, at recent summits, Australia has continued to enhance its bilateral and multilateral cooperation with major partners including India, Japan, and core ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Singapore. 

Yet it is difficult to say that such initiatives would not have occurred but for Trump. Recent efforts to deepen relations with a number of regional partners began well before the 2016 election,58 and there are yet to be any groundbreaking developments that indicate post-Trump urgency in Australia’s diversification activities. For example, despite hopes that the third Japan-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue—hosted in Sydney in April—would provide a platform for deeper security cooperation,59 the meeting did not produce any significant announcements to that effect and appeared to be overshadowed by India’s reluctance to allow Australian participation in the India-Japan-US Malabar naval exercises.60 Similarly, rather than any reinvigoration, the lack of substantive announcements made at the 2017 Australia-Japan leaders summit led some to describe it as indicating “a plateau in … strategic cooperation.”61

Nevertheless, as with the first pillar, it is impossible to argue that Trump’s presidency has had zero impact on Australia’s approach to regional engagement. In particular, while Australian policymakers are still likely to try and salvage the TPP, their disappointment with Trump’s withdrawal from the trade agreement will inevitably spark increased economic cooperation under Chinese leadership. Australia has strong incentives to devote greater resources to concluding RCEP negotiations before it hosts an ASEAN leaders summit in Sydney next March,62 potentially putting Australia within a mega-regional free trade agreement that excludes the United States sooner than would have been expected had the TPP gone ahead.63 Similarly, as China continues to provide much-needed infrastructure and industry investment in Australia’s northern regions, commentators increasingly suspect that Canberra might be pulled into the gravitational orbit of Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative.64 While the government has yet to take the opportunity to formally link its Northern Australia Project with OBOR, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has acknowledged the government sees “merit” and “opportunities for collaboration” stemming from the initiative.65 Ultimately, just as Australia eventually came to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), perhaps Trump’s ‘America First’ trade policies would eventually push Canberra to become an official OBOR partner.

Pillar Three: Commitment to Multilateral Rules-based Institutions

Australia is deeply invested in the maintenance of the global rules-based order. More than fifty years of strong bipartisan support for this third pillar reflect the understanding that, as a middle power, Australia is unable to prosecute its global interests unilaterally and—as Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland recently said of her own, very similar country—it would be affected the “soonest and hardest” in a global order where major powers are unconstrained by standards and institutions that are “internationally respected, enforced and upheld.”66 Australia’s national interests are thus best served by an international order embodying clearly articulated rules and norms that Australia is able to help shape through multilateral negotiations, and can expect to be enforced in a predictable fashion.67 Critical to this order is the healthy functioning of key international organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which provide frameworks through which Australian diplomatic efforts gain greater legitimacy and yield more substantive results than they would otherwise if undertaken independently. Indeed, as the Lowy Institute’s Merriden Varrall recently noted, Australia’s interest in the global rules-based order is so great that it was mentioned 56 separate times in its 2016 Defence White Paper.68

There is a sincere concern in Australia that this global order, led and sustained by the United States for the past 70 years, will erode under a US president who appears to misunderstand or simply reject the logic of many of his nation’s international commitments. Trump is promulgating and beginning to act upon beliefs that threaten to undermine the rules-based order. His “America First” hostility to an open and rules-based trade and investment regime is manifest in his withdrawal from the TPP and suggestion that the United States might ignore WTO decisions or pull out of the organization entirely.69 Further, the president’s refusal to recognize that multilateral rules, institutions, and cooperation usually further his nation’s interest is seen in his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and plans to cut the 2018 budget to the State Department, USAID, and other foreign assistance programs by 37 per cent, which some suggest might render UN work “impossible” given the importance of US budget contributions.70 

Australia could respond by doubling down on its initiatives under this pillar. Indeed, there are a variety of things that Canberra can do to help bolster the rules-based order in light of US retrenchment.  While Turnbull and Bishop have begun placing greater emphasis on the importance of that order when speaking to international audiences in recent months, Bishop’s Canadian counterpart Freeland identifies a variety of meaningful actions that middle powers can take to support, strengthen, and improve the existing order and its institutions.71 This entails not just being a vocal cheerleader but being willing—in partnership with other like-minded states—to bear the costs of supporting the multilateral infrastructure. A 2017 Lowy Institute report on Australia’s engagement with the United Nations makes several concrete and sensible recommendations to that end, including promoting reform and increasing Australian peacekeeping and financial contributions.72

However, as these proposals suggest, any meaningful action in defending the rules-based international order will necessarily entail bearing very real financial costs in aid, organizational, and diplomatic funding, and more poignantly, the human costs of deploying troops on peacekeeping missions. This is a tough sell domestically, as there will always be those who claim that local funding for areas like health, education, and employment should always take absolute priority. The long-term capacity of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is eroding via continual “efficiency dividend” funding cuts, and there seems to be no appetite among the major parties to reverse this trend.73 While the Australian public is not blind to global challenges, votes are generally only lost, and rarely won, on matters of foreign policy. Add to this mix a populist backlash within western democracies against the principles and institutions of liberal internationalism, and no one should expect the nation’s political leaders to make bold proposals to expend more blood and treasure far from Australia’s shores. Doing so is only ever countenanced during or in the aftermath of great catastrophes like war, and the threat currently facing the system in which the “lucky country” has flourished is not, yet, of that magnitude. Nevertheless, much like the challenge of climate change, the threat is real—and grave—and if there was ever a peacetime occasion for Australia’s leaders to make the case to their people for the need to commit valuable resources in aid of a cause that will surely affect successive generations, it is surely approaching.


The election of Donald Trump is having meaningful consequences for the way that Australian commentators, policymakers, and the general public think about the three pillars that underpin the nation’s foreign policy. The new president’s deeply idiosyncratic personality and revisionist approach to foreign policy are raising new and large question marks about not only the US-Australia alliance, but indeed, the way in which Australia engages its regional neighbors and demonstrates commitment to the international rules and institutions that underpin the global rules-based order.  More generally, Trump’s election has brought Australia’s leaders that much closer to the types of choices their country has assiduously avoided throughout its history, amid what Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong describes as a “time of disruption.”74

Yet despite such reevaluations, it is unlikely that the release of Australia’s new foreign policy white paper later in the year will reveal any radical new approaches to the way in which the nation engages the alliance, the region, or the world.  Personalities aside, the fundamental interests of both the United States and Australia remain closely aligned and Canberra continues to accrue significant benefits from the alliance. If, as we have suggested in this piece, Australia is in the unenviable position of navigating increased fears of both abandonment and entrapment under Trump, while strategies of distancing or embracing are both unacceptably costly and unpalatable.

Moreover, given that the partnership continues to have strong bipartisan support in both Canberra and Washington, Australia retains the freedom, for now, to avoid the hardest choices and muddle through for time being. This would appear to be the optimal, or least-bad, strategy. The gap between Chinese and Australian values and interests remains too large for any decisive pivot towards Beijing, and Canberra will have much greater influence alongside the United States than it ever would drifting alone. As such, the smart strategy for Canberra may be for policymakers to focus on how, through old-fashioned diplomacy and political savvy, Australia can strengthen its links and influence with its alliance partner, in part vis-à-vis the Trump administration, but perhaps more importantly with respect to the US Congress and the wider bureaucratic establishment.75

Finally, in terms of the third pillar of Australian foreign policy, one might hope that the seemingly genuine threat that Trump’s approach to world politics poses to the global rules-based order will prompt Australian leaders to make the case to their people for reinvigorating the country’s commitment to supporting the system under which their country has benefitted so enormously. While allocating more energy, time, and resources to things other than the basic daily concerns of Australian voters is never going to be popular, the global order—and the rules, norms, and values that it represents—is more fragile than at any other point since its inception, and in need of all the help it can get.

* The authors wish to acknowledge the research assistance of Dominique Yap.

1. Hugh White, “Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing,” Quarterly Essay 39 (2010): 1-74.

2. Allan Gyngell, “Emerging Challenges for Australian Foreign Policy,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 68, no. 4 (2014): 381-385. 

3. Malcolm Turnbull, “Keynote address 16th IISS Asia Security Summit,” speech delivered at Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, 2 June 2017,

4. Julie Bishop, “Global Heads of Mission Meeting,” speech delivered in Canberra on 28 March 2017,

5. Ibid. The 2016 Defence White Paper underlines that a “strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security and defence planning.” See Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper, 121, .

6. See Peter Edwards, “The Foreign and Defence Policies of Robert Menzies: 50 Years On,” The Strategist, January 28, 2016,

7. See Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942 (Carlton: La Trobe University Press and Black Inc, 2017), Ch. 1.

8. James D. Morrow, “Alliances and Asymmetry: An Alternative to the Capability Aggregation Model of Alliances,” American Journal of Political Science 35, no. 4 (1991): 904-933; Darren J. Lim and Zack Cooper, “Reassessing Hedging: The Logic of Alignment in East Asia,” Security Studies 24, no. 4 (2015): 696-727. 

9. Embassy of Australia (United States of America), “Australia and the United States – First 100 Years of Mateship,”

10. Glenn Snyder, “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics,” World Politics 36, no. 4 (1984): 467.

11. See Zack Cooper and Alexander Lanoszka, “Abandoned Yet Entrapped? Allied Fears During the Trump Administration,”, paper prepared for the 2017 International Studies Association Conference, February 2017. Also see Mira Rapp-Hooper, “A Tale of Two Allies: Why Japan and Australia See Two Different Trumps,”, War on the Rocks, February 20, 2017,; Michael Wesley, “Australia’s reactions to Trump, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, April 24, 2017,

12. Allan Gyngell, Fear of Abandonment.

13. See, for instance, Peter Dean, “Australia and the United States in Asia,” in Peter Dean, Stephan Frühling, and Brendan Taylor, eds., Australia’s American Alliance (Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing, 2016), 262; Brendan Taylor, “Why Australia’s Defence Capability Without ANZUS is Greatly Overrated,” Australian Financial Review, February 6, 2017,

14. Andrew Burrell, “Kim Beazley back with a word of warning on Donald Trump,” The Australian, March 26, 2016. On Trump’s approach to foreign policy more generally, see John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 96 (May/June 2017): 2-9; Alex Ward, “’America Alone’: Trump’s Unilateralist Foreign Policy,” War on the Rocks, May 31, 2016,

15. James Bowen, “Trump-Turnbull Meet Comes Amid Increasing Debate Over Australia’s US Ties,” The Diplomat, May 5, 2017,

16. Henry Belot, “Labor leaders call for careful rethink of US alliance, citing Donald Trump’s foreign policy,” ABC News, November 16, 2016,

17. Greg Sheridan, “Trump and Turnbull put Australia-US alliance back on track,” The Australian, May 6, 2017,

18. Allan Gyngell, “Fighting with America: It’s How We Fight,” The Interpreter, December 20, 2016,

19. Stephen Walt, “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” Survival 39, no. 1 (1997): 160.

20. Hugh White, “With their threats to China, Trump and Tillerson are making rookie blunders that will only hurt US credibility,” South China Morning Post, January 17, 2015,

21. Rachel Baxendale, “North Korea regime a threat to Australia, Malcolm Turnbull says,” The Australian, April 18, 2017,; Peter Baker and Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump threatens ‘fire and fury’ against North Korea if it endangers U.S,” The New York Times, August 8, 2017.

22. James Bowen, “Trump-Turnbull Meet Comes Amid Increasing Debate Over Australia’s US Ties,” The Diplomat, May 5, 2017,

23. Stéfanie von Hlatky, American Allies in Times of War: The Great Asymmetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 28.

24. Leigh Sales and Myles Wearring, “Paul Keating says Australia should ‘cut the tag’ with American foreign policy,” ABC News, November 11, 2016,

25. Hugh White, “Relying on Trump: Australia Needs to Rethink its Approach to Regional Security,” The Monthly, February 2017,; Hugh White, “ANZUS in the Age of Trump,” The Strategist, December 1, 2016,

26. Nick Bisley, “‘An ally for all the years to come’: Why Australia is not a Conflicted US Ally,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 4 (2013): 403-418. On the benefits of remaining near the top of the US intelligence-alliance hierarchy, see Michael Wesley, “The Alliance as an Intelligence Partnership,” in Peter Dean, Stephan Frühling, and Brendan Taylor, eds., Australia’s American Alliance (Carlton: Melbourne University Publishing, 2016).

27. See ABC Fact Check, “Fact check: Does ANZUS commit the US to come to Australia’s aid, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop claims?” ABC News, July 8, 2014,

28. Angus Houston and Rory Medcalf, “The Unaffordable Price of Australia Abandoning ANZUS over Donald Trump,” Australian Financial Review, February 21, 2017,  

29. Mira Rapp-Hopper, “A Tale of Two Allies: Why Japan and Australia See Two Different Trumps,”, War on the Rocks, February 20, 2017,

30. See Zack Cooper and Alexander Lanoszka, “Abandoned Yet Entrapped?” 13-15; Mira Rapp-Hopper, “A Tale of Two Allies.”

31. Jacqueline Williams, “Malcolm Turnbull, Australian Leader, Pokes Fun at Trump in Leaked Recording,” The New York Times, 15 June 2017,

32. Francis Keany, “US election: What Australian politicians have to say about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” ABC News, November 9, 2016,; Paul Karp, “Trump the most ‘psychologically ill-equipped’ US president ever, says Gareth Evans,” The Guardian, April 13, 2017,

33. Lowy Institute, 2017 Lowy Institute Poll,

34. Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter, and Janell Fetterolf, “U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership,” Pew Research Centre, June 26, 2017,

35. Allan Gyngell, “Factoring Trump into the US-Australia Alliance,” East Asia Forum, February 13, 2017,

36.   “Mike Pence reaffirms ‘historical alliance’ between US and Australia in Turnbull meeting,” The Guardian, April 22, 2017,

37. Dan Lamothe, “In Australia Mattis and Tillerson Address Growing Concerns about American Isolationism,” The Washington Post, June 5 2017,

38. Paul McGeough, “Rex Tillerson cleans up Donald Trump’s mess in Australia, Japan and South Korea,” The Guardian, February 8, 2017,

39. “US senators form ‘Friends of Australia’ caucus,” SBS Australia, May 9, 2017, Also see Dougal Robinson, “Congress Rallies Around Australia,” The Interpreter, February 9, 2017,

40. Stephen Walt, “Why Alliances Endure or Collapse,” 166.

41. See Stephan Frühling, “Wrestling with Commitment: Geography, Alliance Institutions and the ANZUS Treaty,” in Australia’s American Alliance.

42. Sabra Lane, “Donald Trump likely to ask Australia to send ship to South China Sea: ex-Defence official Peter Jennings,” ABC News Australia, November 17, 2016, See, e.g., John McCarthy, “Australia and the South China Sea,” The Strategist, March 17, 2016,; Primrose Riordan, “Conservatives call for Australian response to China’s expansion in South China Sea,” Australian Financial Review, January 3, 2017,; Donald Rothwell, “Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea: Australia must take a stand,” The Strategist, June 14, 2017,

43. “Australia suspends air strikes in Syria after U.S. downing of Syrian jet,” Reuters, June 20, 2017,

44. It has recently been suggested that the relationship with China is becoming its own independent pillar of Australian foreign policy. Graeme Dobell, “Australia-East Asia/US Relations: Turnbull, TPP, and Trump,” Comparative Connections 18, no. 2 (2016): 146.

45. Greg Earl, “Economic diplomacy brief: TPP 11 vs RCEP, Asian banks and economic nationalism,” The Interpreter, June 1, 2017,

46. Jane Perlez, “U.S. Casts Wary Eye on Australian Port Leased by Chinese,” The New York Times, March 20, 2016,

47. David Uren, “Free Investment Pass for Foreign State Firms,”, The Australian, March 30, 2017,

48. See Darren J. Lim and Zack Cooper, “Reassessing Hedging,” 696-727.

49. Greg Raymond, “A revived Quad won’t help Australia,” The Interpreter, June 23, 2017,

50. Nick McKenzie, Chris Uhlmann, Richard Baker, and Sashka Koloff, “Australian sovereignty under threat from influence of China’s Communist Party,” ABC News Australia, June 6, 2017,; Andrew Greene, “Chinese spies ‘very active’ in Australia, departing defence secretary warns,” ABC News Australia, May 12, 2017,; “Meddle Kingdom: Australia Battles Chinese Political Influence,” The Economist, June 15, 2017,

51. See, e.g., Merriden Varrall, “A Chinese Threat to Australian Openness,” The New York Times, July 31, 2017,; Mark Thomson, “The Wickedness of China,” June 8, 2017, The Strategist,; Peter Hartcher, “China has defied the rules with impunity,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2017,; John Fitzgerald, “Why Values Matter in Australia’s Relations with China,” The ASAN Forum 2, no. 3 (June 13, 2014),

52. Andrew Greene, “Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivers warning to China on need to embrace democracy,” ABC News Australia, March 14, 2017,

53. Lowy Institute, 2017 Lowy Institute Poll, Note, however, that the same poll reveals some confusion within the Australian public, with 79 per cent considering China to currently be an “economic partner”, rather than a “military threat.” See Merriden Varrall, “Australians’ views of China: we need to go deeper than ‘fear and greed,’” Canberra Times, July 4, 2017,

54. Malcolm Turnbull, “Keynote address 16th IISS Asia Security Summit.”

55. Rory Medcalf, “China doesn’t hold the economic leverage over Australia that most people think,” Australian Financial Review, March 27, 2017,

56. Briana Shepherd, “Julie Bishop says China’s objection to Taiwanese delegates at Perth meeting was ‘regrettable,’” ABC News Australia, May 3, 2017,

57. See, e.g., Ashley Townshend, America First: US Asia Policy under President Trump (Sydney: United States Studies Centre, 2017); David Brewster and Anthony Bergin, “India takes an unsentimental view on Trump—and Australia should too,” The Strategist, March 23, 2017,

58. See, e.g., Anthony Milner, “Australia may need a post-America foreign policy Plan B,” Australian Financial Review, October 25, 2016,

59. Ian Hall, “The Australia­­–India–Japan trilateral: converging interests… and converging perceptions?” The Strategist, March 17, 2017,; C. Raja Mohan and Rory Medcalf, “Delhi, Tokyo, Canberra,” The Indian Express, February 10, 2017,

60. Rekha Bhattacharjee, “Exercise Malabar shadow over Japan-Australia-India Trilateral Dialogue,” Indian Down Under, May 1, 2017,

61. Euan Graham, “Missed opportunities at the Australia-Japan summit,” The Interpreter, January 16, 2017,

62. Greg Earl, “Economic diplomacy brief: TPP 11 vs RCEP, Asian banks and economic nationalism.”

63. Graeme Dobell, “Australia-East Asia/US Relations,” 149; William Tow, “President Trump and the Implications for the Australia– US Alliance and Australia’s Role in Southeast Asia,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 39, no. 1 (2017): 53.

64. Jane Wardell and Jonathan Barrett, “Silk roads and chilled beef: how China is trying to fill a Trump vacuum in Australia,” Reuters, March 29, 2017,

65. “One Belt One Road: Australia ‘sees merit’ in China’s new Silk Road initiative,” ABC News Australia, March 14, 2017,

66. Chrystia Freeland, “Address by Minister Freeland on Canada’s foreign policy priorities,” speech delivered in Ottawa, Canada, June 6, 2017,‑affairs/news/2017/06/address_by_ministerfreelandoncanadasforeignpolicypriorities.html.

67. Allan Gyngell, “Australia’s foreign policy challenges,” speech delivered on April 13, 2017,’s-foreign-policy-challenges.

68. Merriden Varrall, “Does China’s rise threaten the rules-based order?”, The Interpreter, June 7, 2017,

69. John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy,” 5; Jessica T. Mathews, “What Trump Is Throwing Out the Window,” New York Review of Books, February 9, 2017,; Rob Taylor, “Australia Backs WTO as Trump Calls for U.S. Trade Shift,” The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2017,

70. Colum Lynch, “White House Seeks to Cut Billions in Funding for United Nations,” Foreign Policy, March 13, 2017,

71. Brendan Thomas-Noone, “Canada, Australia and the liberal international order in the Trump era,” The Interpreter, June 27, 2017,

72. Peter Nadin, “The shape of Australia’s future engagement with the United Nations,” Lowy Institute, March 31, 2017,

73. Alex Oliver, “Australia’s flatlining foreign affairs budget,” The Interpreter, May 10, 2017,

74. Penny Wong, “Australia’s National Interests in a Time of Disruption,” speech delivered at the Lowy Institute, Sydney, July 6, 2017,

75. As Alan Tidwell reminds us, both the executive and Congress are directly involved in different aspects of US foreign policy development. “The Role of ‘Diplomatic Lobbying’ in Shaping US Foreign Policy and its Effects on the Australia-US Relationship,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 71 no. 2 (2017): 184-200.

Now Reading Australia