MACK WILLIAMS. Trump : Getting our priorities right

Nov 19, 2016


Is China going to fill the void?

The media-hyped flurry to try to establish the likely policy guidelines of the Trump administration is timely and natural but should be approached very cautiously. Not only is it virtually impossible at this moment to reach many definitive conclusions it is no less easy to identify the likely key players in the new administration – even within the close-in transition team as the sacking of Governor Christie and his cohort has illustrated. At the same time Australia needs to undertake a proper review of the major strategic trends in our region which have been developing for some years – and pre-date Trump. Concerns about the implications for our region stemming from Trump’s comments in the campaign certainly served to accelerate those trends. But we are where we are today because of the fundamentally changing strategic scene.

A clear understanding of these trends and their implications for Australia are urgently required as a basis for our discussions with the incoming US administration. As welcome as it is, the necessary time line for the White Paper will preclude it from being available and shared with the community in time. Inevitably the current situation runs a high risk of required basic analysis becoming entangled with the evolving debates within the new US administration. All of which, given Trump’s lack of historical connection and his deal making style, are likely to become difficult to read let alone predict.

Successive Australian administrations have failed dismally to take proper account of the strategic changes in our region over the past 10 years or so – clinging ever increasingly to the US apron strings. This has been reinforced by the deepening enmeshment of our security and intelligence agencies into the US apparatus and the growing emphasis on interoperability with the US military.

This has impaired Australia’s capacity for independent policy analysis based on our national interest in our region – which we used to do without damaging (but rather enhancing) our alliance relationship with US. This goes well back before the outstanding role Gareth Evans played in Cambodia. For example, to the Vietnam War in which we were a leading US partner but not only represented US interests in Cambodia but also Cambodian interests in South Vietnam. We also opened our mission in Hanoi well ahead of the US. Although naturally there were some policy differences our agility was well appreciated in Washington and enhanced our alliance role. And without the charges of heresy levelled so often today at the slightest suggestion of constructive discussion about ANZUS – and the scare campaigns regularly mounted in the domestic political arena.

The DFAT White Paper offers a real prospect for the long overdue non-partisan and reasoned analysis. The rise of China and India as key powers in our region have changed significantly the regional landscape and created some major challenges and opportunities. Nor should we ignore the very real social and economic changes still occurring throughout all the countries in the region. While some changes have a more regional basis, a “one size fits all” policy is much less appropriate and we need to strengthen our resources to keep pace with this rapidly evolving scene.

One key element has been the gradually diminished US influence in the region illustrated by South China Sea developments and the failure of the much vaunted US “pivot” “or rebalancing. The emergence of President Duterte in the Philippines has unleashed a dynamic which is the latest chapter in the US decolonisation process. This has dawned on the rest of ASEAN (save Singapore and possibly still Vietnam) with Malaysia following quickly down the Beijing route and Thailand’s military moving closer to China. It is likely to be a game breaker for the US strategy of opposing the Chinese push into the South China Sea. It has also severely dented US plans to use the new defence arrangements it forced on Duterte’s predecessor as a cover for rebuilding a military presence back into the Philippines – twenty years after the withdrawal of the major US bases ( Subic Bay and Clark). That enhanced military presence was seen as vital by US planners to support the containment of China – so central to the pivot.

Efforts at this early stage to clarify the details of Trump’s likely basket of policies and so much doubt continues about how much his campaign rhetoric will be translated into policy development. The attempt to interpret the pecking order of conversations with Trump, which has now been shown to have been so random, was pathetic. In fact the first head to speak with him was the Egyptian President ! And the reported involvement of Greg Norman to make the link for the Prime Minister ( requiring 4 leading pages of the Daily Telegraph as a booster!) has now been widely parodied in world media. And the US media have pointed out that Trump in his habitual late evening Twitter omitted Australia from the top group of important countries with whom he has been in touch. He added New Zealand and Australia in a later Twitter!

The apparent (and unsurprising) difficulties within the transition team and the rolling out of the new Cabinet membership have also complicated matters. Wading through all of this inevitably has encouraged cherry picking of policy comment with no real certainty of accuracy. Take, for example, comments by Secretary of State aspirant Giuliani of a massive military build-up in the Western Pacific which Prime Minister was so quick to endorse publically when there is not much doubt that a further 100 US Naval ships deployed to the region cannot “save” the South China Sea – even if they could be deployed now and not require substantial increases in on-land support throughout ASEAN! As Kishore Mahubani points out the simultaneous quest for all this massive new funding both in infrastructure in the US and for the defence machine   and when with promised major tax cuts must eventually lead to China – as Trump’s own ventures also have! So we need to exercise extreme caution in responding to a proposed military build-up ever eventuating – not welcome it nor, as the indomitable Christopher Pyne, crowed see the possibilities the defence build-up would offer to the Australian defence industry !

The announcement overnight of the new Attorney General, National Security Advisor and CIA Director provides confirmation that we are in for policy hardliners in all three key posts. Certainly the latter two are bound to have some difficulties settling into both agencies with whom they have had past issues – particularly as the public letter of criticism of Trump by almost all   senior people who had served in these areas in previous Republican administrations would seem to have removed so many from the usual recruitment pool. If Romney emerges as Secretary of State he would present some balance but then the personality interplay between them all – and his destructive intervention against Trump in the campaign will always be lurking behind the scenes. There will also be the constant X factor of Trump the deal cutter. At this. stage deals with both Russia and China must be included in any future policy agenda – and we need to avoid being caught out !

By the way I wonder if the following Newt Gingrich quote from some years ago had anything to do with his backing out ?

“If the Soviet empire still existed, I’d be terrified. The fact is, we can afford a fairly ignorant presidency now.”

One thing which Australia should be doing – as was almost automatic in the past – would be for a senior Minister or representative to be despatched urgently around all ASEAN countries for quiet discussions with governments and other key players about the scene today. Its main role would be to listen. It will be argued that there is so much social media communication between leaders and ministers these days that this is unnecessary because “we get it from the horse’s mouth”. Anyone familiar with ASEAN knows only too well that you have to go deeper and smarter to discover what is really going on. And we need to ensure ASEAN views are again given proper accord in reaching our policy settings.

Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines


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