Acting Director, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs
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Donald Trump’s telephone meltdown with Malcolm Turnbull is grist to the mill for a chorus of commentators who call for Australia to develop a more independent foreign and strategic policy. But such calls underestimate the independence which has long been a feature of Australian foreign policy. They also overestimate the extent to which Australia can defend itself without America.
Criticism of Australia-US strategic ties is as old as the alliance itself. What’s new today is that it has moved into broader political and public discourse. Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s observation that the relationship is at a “change point”, coupled with Greens Leader Richard Di Natale’s plea to “junk” the alliance following Trump’s controversial immigration ban, suggest political consensus around the alliance is splintering. According to the latest Lowy Institute poll, almost half the Australian public think Canberra should distance itself from a Trump-led America.
This challenging of the alliance is not unhealthy. The strongest strategic relationships are those subjected to regular scrutiny.
That said, let’s not discount the remarkable foreign policy autonomy Canberra has enjoyed in this alliance.
Plenty of latitude
Take our China policy. Australia traded enthusiastically with Communist China during the Cold War and by the late 1960s had become Beijing’s third largest supplier of goods. This was at a time when a US-led trade embargo was in place against China. More recently, Canberra joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank despite Washington’s very public protestations.
Australia has also exercised considerable leeway in our broader Asian engagement. Canberra championed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) process in the late 1980s, proposed a new regional security grouping in the early 1990s and joined the East Asia Summit in the mid-2000s, all initially to Washington’s chagrin. Most recently, Turnbull cheekily sought to resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) absent the Americans.
But, foreign and defence policy are worlds apart. The first involves responding to and shaping developments beyond our borders. The second concerns the defence of those borders, using military force where necessary.
Defence policy doesn’t afford much wiggle room. Canberra, for instance, doesn’t have the option of taking the road to Wellington, downsizing our military and spending significantly less on defence. We are much closer to Asia’s major power machinations than the kiwis. We also don’t have the luxury of an island continent sitting to our north shielding us from these.
Read the full article by Dr Brendan Taylor in the Financial Review.