STEPHEN FITZGERALD. Donald Trump. Seizing the opportunity to strengthen relations with countries in Asia.

Nov 10, 2016

Kim Beazley, as shocked as anyone by the election result, has said: “We do have one advantage going for us with a Trump presidency, and that’s this. We are a member of the only American alliance that the Trump people unreservedly approve of. So at least we’ve got a basis of a discussion with them.” Kim seems to believe this is some kind of plus. But I think it is frightening. The favoured client of the Trump people! If that is true, what does it say about us, and the expectations of us in regional and international affairs as the Trump presidency gets into stride?

Bob Carr said to his fellow panellists on ABC News 24 on Wednesday that they must stop ‘normalising’ Trump, the Trump phenomenon and the coming Trump presidency, stop saying well we’ve had this kind of thing before, like Reagan for example. You can see this ‘normalising’ already in the first responses of Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop. But as Bob said, you have to understand that Trump’s win expresses a complete shift in the US political scene and it’s not going to change after Inauguration day.

But I see the shock is an opportunity. I can’t remember an occasion when Australians either followed with such interest, or recoiled in such widespread shock and disbelief at a momentous event in American politics. There’s an opportunity here for this sudden moment of clarity to be translated into a total re-thinking of our relations with the United States and a rejection of the whole position of reflexive acceptance of US strategic assessments and policies and alliances, particularly in Asia, and of getting involved in America’s wars. And instead becoming a well-intentioned critic of US policies, and responding plainly and if necessary publicly to the periodic attempts of Washington officials to browbeat Australian politicians and officials.

We should seize this opportunity, now, to vastly strengthen our relations with the countries in Asia, our primary geostrategic region, and work in partnership with them to try to manage the disruption and limit the damage from a potentially rogue and wrecking US President in our region. How? Here’s one possibility.

As we know, China is intent on challenging or changing at least some of the rules of the international order, if not for the whole world, certainly for the Asian region. The setting up of the AIIB was one example. But it’s the One Belt One Road concept that foreshadows different rules more broadly, a prospect inherent also in China’s idea of ‘communities of shared destiny’. President Obama, conceding that the world is changing and the rules are changing with it, has said the United States not China should write the rules. I didn’t agree with that even from Obama, and I’d be quite fearful of a President Trump re-writing the rules of the international order.

In any event, China will go on doing what it has begun, and it has the political and economic and strategic power to do so. We must recognise that, but this does not mean we should not try to influence it or head off any change that is unacceptable. As it has been extending its influence into its neighbouring countries, each one has been endeavouring to manage in its own way this new projection of power and influence and the rules China would like to bring with it.

Rather than resisting China’s bid to change the rules, or just standing by and leaving it to China, why should not China’s friends and neighbours within this region try to work together with China on these matters? This would entail proposing to China that regionally we need the stability and security of a community, not in an EU sense, but rather a loose connection of countries with mutually agreed rules. And work our way towards mutually acceptable positions and even an agreed document, a kind of charter for a new Asia.

This is not to suggest surrender to Chinese suzerainty but rather the reverse, but in collaboration with China not in confrontation, a welcoming regional response to China’s renewed power and influence rather than the more negative response proposed by the US. And in recognition of the great change and volatility in the world, and in Asia what the great Australian international relations scholar Coral Bell in 2007 called ‘The End of the Vasco da Gama Era’ – surely cause for revisiting the rules with our Asian neighbours and making new ones that fit the contemporary realities of our world. With Trump as president, or with possibly like-minded successors, we may need the collective security of a rules-based Asian international order.

Dr. Stephen Fitzgerald was formerly Australia’s Ambassador to China.

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