RICHARD WOOLCOTT. The Trump Presidency and Australia. Quo vadis series.

Nov 28, 2016


Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS

 Summary. Our relationship with the US is of course very important and substantial. This does not mean that we should be seen as not responding quickly to the greatly changed world of 2016.

Donald Trump’s attitudes, while uncertain and changeable seven weeks before he assumes the presidency, may well be good for Australia.

The main outcome is that we can now forge a more independent policy focussed on the region in which we are situated, the Asian and south west Pacific region.

An army of commentators have speculated on Trump’s likely policies and Cabinet appointments but there is no point in involving ourselves in this process.

The Trump presidency will hopefully bring an overdue end to our misconceived and ineffective operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Former Indonesian ambassador to Australia, Sabam Siagian, and editor in chief of the Jakarta Post, wrote earlier this year the blunt comment that “Australia is still stuck in the 20th century mode. It is a monarchy, with a head of state in London, and its security arrangements are largely Cold War relics …… Australia is out of sync with the emerging geo-political environment of Asia today.”

Our relationship with the United States is of course very important and substantial. It will remain so in the future but this does not mean we should be seen as not responding quickly to the greatly changed world of 2016.

Clearly we do need to establish an updated and more balanced approach to the vital relationships between the United States and China. The present debate on China mainly assumes that Australia has no choice but to support American supremacy in Asia against a perceived rising Chinese hegemony. This is a simplistic approach which has been challenged by Prime Ministers Hawke, Keating and the late Malcolm Fraser. While China can be expected to resist American hegemony in the Asian region it accepts a constructive and cooperative United States role in Asia.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has correctly asserted that we should now assert independent Australian foreign, security and trade policies, based on our own defined national interest. We should move on promptly from our subordination to United States and British failed policies in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East.

China has essentially been reacting to its uncertainty about the United States’ ‘Pivot to Asia’, now called ‘Rebalancing’. In addition to Indonesia, Japan, Australia and South Korea as well as countries like Vietnam, India and Russia also need to know what is involved.

It has been clear to me for years that Russia and China would never accept in Syria that President Assad must be replaced by an undetermined new leader. The so-called Arab Spring has been a winter of failure and discontent, especially in Libya, Egypt and Syria. It has also been clear to me that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) will not come about.

We should not exaggerate the alleged Chinese threat in the Senkaku, Sprately and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea.

The Senkaku Islands are claimed by China and Japan.

Six countries – China, Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – all have claims in the Sprately Islands. All except Brunei occupy some of the small islands, rocks and shoals.

This is a productive fishing area and a very busy region. Tanker traffic through this area is three times more than what passes through the Suez Canal and five times more than what passes through the Panama Canal.

The Paracel Islands, relatively close to Hainan in southern China, include about 130 small coral islands and reefs. They are mostly controlled and occupied by China, but are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Woody Island was occupied from 1946 to 1950 by Taiwan but China has occupied it since 1955. China has declared a city named Sansha under the Hainan Province as administering the area. Vietnam has claimed the Crescent Islands since 1955.

The situation in the South China Sea is enormously complex. Australia should not take sides. On rival territorial water claims our focus should be on unimpeded passage through international waters and trade routes. It is important that our major political parties all take this view and it was, for example, foolish of Richard Marles, the Labor Defence spokesperson, to have taken a position more provocative than the Liberal Party.

Richard Woolcott, Permanent Representative at the United Nations (1982-1988), Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1988-1992)

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