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 presence.
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.