Australia’s foreign policy is currently in a precarious position. It is in a delicate position at the best of times, firstly having to balance many competing interests and nations in a complex South-East Asian region. There is also the issue of maintaining deep ties in trade between the United States and China, the two most powerful nations in the world who have in many ways opposite interests. The election of Donald Trump and his subsequent rhetoric on several issues, particularly on international trade and security arrangements as well as his positions on institutions such as the United Nations and NATO has caused many nations around the world to re-evaluate their relations with the United States. Australia is no exception to this speculation, despite being historically tied closely with the US. Since the election, there have been widespread calls for Australia’s government to closely re-evaluate the relationship with the United States.
These potential differences have become much more clear in recent days, in a temperamental phone conversation between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The call, scheduled for an hour, ended after just 25 minutes. According to the Washington Post, the main point of contention between the two leaders during the call was a refugee deal brokered at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This deal involved 1250 refugees being taken in by America that are currently being held in Australia. Though neither Trump nor Turnbull would elaborate on the allegations, the report gives an indication that some of the norms of the Australian-US partnership may no longer be a given.
Aside from this conversation, there have been other indications that Australia is willing to part with the United States on key issues, such as international trade. Just days after inauguration, Trump signed an executive order to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal. In keeping with Trump’s promise for an ‘America First’ approach to trade, Trump appears to be reviewing all of America’s trade deals. By contrast, Turnbull is pushing hard to keep the TPP alive, willing to re-negotiate the deal even with America’s withdrawl. He has reached out to key nations such as China and Japan in order to salvage a deal, despite indications that a United States withdrawal would lead to the TPP being scrapped altogether. Reaching out to China is another move which will likely cause a clash with the Trump administration, given the administration’s trade policies toward China.
These disagreements suggest that Turnbull is heading toward a foreign policy agenda which, while still valuing the United States as a close ally, is willing to disagree and clash on issues. There is, of course, a long history of deep economic and security ties between the two nations. Despite Trump’s early actions, this is unlikely to fundamentally change. It is likely that unlike previous American administrations, the Trump administration will have to be dealt with on an issue-to-issue basis. Unlike his predecessors, Trump does not agree with every aspect of the world order as it currently stands. This is particularly true on the issue of trade and to a lesser extent to security arrangements. There will inevitably be conflicts as Australia, as with every other nation, comes to terms with the Trump administration and its approach to governance.