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How might a Trump presidency affect Australia?

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How might a Trump presidency affect Australia?

Posted 29/06/2016 by Stephen Fallon

The US Republican Party is poised to nominate Donald Trump as its candidate for the

November 2016 presidential election. Trump has no previous experience of governing, no

record of military service and has evinced little interest in policy details. He has, however,

suggested that Muslims should be prohibited from entering America, that Japan and South

Korea should consider developing nuclear weapons, and praised authoritarian leaders such

as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. These compliments have been reciprocated, illustrating

that Trump is no ordinary candidate. Given its close strategic relationship with America, it is

timely to assess what a Trump presidency might mean for Australia.

While some Australian observers of American politics may take comfort in the fact that most

polls predict a victory for the Democrats, Trump’s campaign has consistently upset the

predictions of political commentators and it would be unwise to write off his

chances. Following criticism of Trump by senior Australian politicians, both of Australia’s

major parties have stated that they will be able to work with whomever the American

electorate chooses.

If elected, it is difficult to predict what steps Trump would take given his propensity to

contradict himself. Moreover, during primary season, all presidential candidates tend to veer

toward the extreme end of the political spectrum to enthuse their base before attempting to

return to a more centrist position after winning the nomination. Mitt Romney’s attempt to

broaden his appeal among the Latino community after securing the Republican nomination

in 2012 is a fine example of this practice.

Nevertheless, Trump has been relatively consistent in a few areas that would affect

Australia. For example, he has said that he will stand up to China, which he claims has

‘stolen’ American jobs through intellectual property theft, currency manipulation and low

labour costs. Though he has asserted that he will be able to make a deal with China, he has

also asked, ‘Who the hell cares if there’s a trade war?’ Such a conflict may occur if, as Trump

has suggested, he declares China to be a currency manipulator and imposes a 35 per cent

import tax on goods produced by US companies that transfer production overseas.

This would potentially be harmful to Australia which relies on open trade and has close

economic relations with both the United States and China. It would likely increase the

distrust and competition between Washington and Beijing, exacerbating strategic tension in

the Asia-Pacific. If Washington embraced protectionism, it might also make it harder for

Australia to export to the United States (although in contrast to the large deficit it shoulders

in its economic relations with China, the United States enjoys a healthy surplus in its trade

with Australia).

However, it is in the strategic realm that a Trump presidency would most concern Australia.

Trump has called upon Japan and South Korea to contribute more towards the cost of

stationing American military units in their countries (both of which already make substantial

financial contributions to defray US expenses). Declaring that America can’t afford to defend

countries like Japan anymore—and ignoring the considerable benefits America accrues from

its military presence in allied countries—Trump has suggested that South Korea and Japan

should consider developing their own nuclear arsenals and that he would be open to

withdrawing US forces from those countries if they do not further subsidise the US military


As figures such as Australia’s former ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, have pointed out,

such policies could undermine Australia’s security. If a Trump administration did encourage

South Korea and Japan—two American allies with a troubled history and dislike of each

other—to acquire nuclear weapons, it may prompt other states in the region to acquire

them. A growing number of nuclear-armed states in a region characterised by unsettled

territorial disputes, an abundance of nationalism and historical grievances would make Asia

a more dangerous place—an outcome clearly inimical to Australia’s interests.

Moreover, if a Trump administration decided to cede America’s regional primacy and

withdraw its military forces from the Asia-Pacific, it would create a vacuum that China would

likely seek to fill. This would, in turn, encourage other regional states to balance against

Beijing in an attempt to prevent Chinese hegemony, with the probable result being

increased instability. Australia would no longer enjoy the shelter of the American nuclear

umbrella and would likely need to spend substantially more on defence given the absence of

US military deterrence. Even if Trump did not preside over a diminished US presence, a

Trump presidency may result in reduced popular support for the ANZUS alliance among the

Australian electorate, as signalled in recent polling conducted by the Lowy Institute.

Finally, a Trump administration’s approach to the ‘War on Terror’ may also place Australia in

an invidious position. Trump has declared that he would approve the waterboarding of

terrorism suspects, and ‘more than that’. Furthermore, he has claimed that his

administration would target terrorists by ‘tak[ing] out their families’, although he

subsequently backtracked on his support for this tactic.

In short, it is difficult to predict what kind of president Donald Trump would be. It is

possible that he would be sobered by the responsibility of the presidency and would adopt a

more orthodox foreign policy in keeping with post-war American grand strategy. However,

given the announcements that have characterised his campaign to date, it is reasonable to

conclude that a Trump presidency would portend a more difficult and uncertain strategic

environment for Australia.