Donald Trump is a political anomaly. Despite having lost the election a thousand times through his words and actions, a comeback in recent polls suggests he may be just days away from becoming the world’s most powerful man. Whilst there are political lessons to learn from this US election, just as important now is considering the consequences of a Trump victory. This article will cover the economic, military and diplomatic ramifications for Australia in such an event. (image: wikimedia)
Trump has made it very obvious that he believes the United States’ role as the world’s police isn’t tenable, which is an idea especially important to the Asia Pacific region. With China’s power growing yearly and their ambitions not far behind, a clash of some sort seems inevitable. At the moment the South China Sea crisis poses the biggest threat to regional stability, but it’s impossible to predict where the course of future events will lead. Despite any perceived threats, Trump is convinced countries must start paying, potentially billions, if they wish to retain the much sought after presence of the American military.
Australia is just one country benefiting from this US presence. Although a far-cry from the numbers of US personnel stationed in Japan and Korea, from 2017 onward Darwin will be hosting 2500 Marines on a yearly rotation. Whilst it’s unlikely these troops will be the target of Trump’s isolationism, it may fall victim to Trump’s budget cuts, so it would be a mistake to rule the notion out entirely. In any event, the vacuum created by a reduction of US forces in the region would necessitate a rethink of Australia’s defence strategy. The change in the balance of power with China would likely see Australia tighten its ties with fellow ASEAN members, and either individually or collectively, begin a military build-up in an effort to fill the gaps left by the diminishing American forces.
On the material front Australia might also suffer from an embarrassing set-back: the cancellation of the Joint Strike Fighter program. The program, which is currently developing the F-35A aircraft, is set to deliver Australia 72 of the futuristic jets at a cost of 17.8 billion dollars – the dearest acquisition ever for the air force. The multi-role fighter has been a central pillar of Australian security thinking since its purchase 14 years ago and has had its worth defended by successive governments. However, Donald Trump has floated the idea of cancelling the long overdue and absurdly expensive aircraft, citing reports of the F-35A’s lacklustre performance.
Although not as significant as the effects Trump’s policies might have on regional stability, Australia’s economy could potentially be affected by a Republican victory. Whilst Trump has not specifically mentioned the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), which has been drastically cutting tariffs between the two countries since 2004, it is hard to imagine a world where he is supportive of it. Championing protectionism, he has denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as disasters for American jobs. If this train of thought extends to the AUSFTA, any break-down or revision of the terms of free trade between Australia and America could be disastrous. Whilst America benefits the most from the agreement, having increased its exports to Australia by approximately 99% since the deal was signed, Australia’s export growth of 23% isn’t too poor either. Farmers – who drive Australia’s biggest export to America, meat – would be the worst affected by a reintroduction of tariffs, something the strong American farming lobby wouldn’t exactly oppose. Trade would be further crippled if Trump’s once mentioned intention to place a 20% tax on all imported goods is realised – though such a blanket effort is unlikely.
What exactly this lapse, or at least change, in trade would mean for the common Australian is hard to predict and very much depends on what Australia does in response to American protectionist efforts. Pass-through costs may would likely end up being footed by the common person in a whole range of industries due to the increased cost of US supplied heavy and electrical machinery.
Relations between Australia and the United States of America are unlikely to change much in the aftermath of a Trump victory – diplomats know not to be unnecessarily reactive people. But if all of the measures mentioned above eventuate, a significant amount of negotiation and communication will occur between the countries.
Indeed, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, which has never shied away from bashing other countries and their leaders, hasn’t extended to Australia. Whilst Trump hasn’t spoken at length on the relationship between the Australia and the US, reports do suggest that he views it as a “special relationship”. In a move which might just pay off in the long run, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States Joe Hockey was the first in the world to enter into talks with Trump’s team. Coupled with the fact Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been holding back any potential criticism of the Republican, it is unlikely Australia will be on the receiving end of unforeseen hostility.
But there is room for a potentially unfortunate diplomatic swivel – if Bill Shorten wins the next election. The Opposition leader has not been so muted on the wild card Trump; a move which he has been both criticised and praised for but would almost certainly lead to strain at some point. However, if such an awkward turn of events is on the horizon it is likely that Bill Shorten will enter into damage control and try to explain-away his description of Trump as the “ultimate protest vote” and his views as “barking mad”.