Dumb deals and the threat to Asian security
The threats to peace and security across East Asia are multiplying. The challenges of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea are both pressing issues.
Tellingly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been in Asia on a mission to reassure Japan and South Korea that the United States remains a reliable ally and is not turning its back on the region. Mattis assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday that the United States would stand by its mutual defence treaty, despite statements by President Trump during last year’s campaign that suggested he might pull back from American security commitments in Asia.
‘I want there to be no misunderstanding during the transition in Washington that we stand firmly, 100 per cent, shoulder to shoulder with you and the Japanese people’, said Mattis at the start of a meeting with Abe.
Mattis’ mission was about restoring confidence in America’s alliance partnerships after the pounding they’d received from Trump’s own questioning of the contribution they were making to America’s global security purchase.
Mattis’ ‘keep calm and carry on’ mission got no help from the fracas that erupted with Australia, perhaps America’s closest regional ally. All this played out to the background of Trump’s ordering a covert special forces operation in Yemen that went disastrously wrong and national security adviser, Michael Flynn, threatening war with Iran.
This has not been a week of reassurance.
The Trump–Turnbull episode has impact far beyond the Australia–US alliance relationship. It was headline news around the world because of the line of sight it provided into what’s going on in the minds of Trump and his closest deputies in the White House.
Here’s a US president in his first telephone conversation with the prime minister of a top American ally — a New York Times survey this week tells us that, among Republicans, Australia is rated as the United States’ most trusted alliance partner, above the United Kingdom and Canada — telling him that the conversation was ‘the worst he’d had by far’ that day (including one with Russian President Vladimir Putin) and terminating the one-hour call 25 minutes in when Turnbull had an announced agenda on global security issues still on the table.
Trump’s rant was prompted by him being called to honour the ‘dumb deal’ Australia had done with the Obama administration to swap refugees caught in Australia’s ‘Pacific solution’ bind. It’s a deal, it needs to be said, that delivered indirect reciprocity to the United States’ refugee problems in its own backyard.
And how do we know this? Because Trump’s own White House team leaked the insults to the Washington Post.
The intelligent Australian press have cast Trump as treating Australians and the partnership ‘like dirt‘.
Tough calls between Australian and world leaders are nothing new. There have been times in the past when there was hard talk within the framework of the Australia–US alliance relationship. But there has been nothing quite the same as this exchange or its treatment in the public domain.
Turnbull has insisted that the US–Australia alliance relationship is very strong. ‘The fact we received the assurance that we did [on the refugee deal], the fact that it was confirmed, the very extensive engagement we have with the new administration underlines the closeness of the alliance’.
Dozens of prominent Americans on both sides of politics have provided public testament to the value they place on ties with Australia and extended support to Australia’s representatives in Washington. There is a genuine sense of public horror that Trump has done damage to its relationship with an ally as valuable and as loyal as Australia. The Australian Labor opposition has locked in behind Turnbull’s handling of the affair.
But this is not business as usual and we cannot pretend that nothing’s changed.
In this week’s lead essay, Michael D. Swaine from the Carnegie Endowment in Washington warns that: ‘Any serious effort to implement the proposals or ideas for dealing with these security challenges confronting the United States in Asia from Donald Trump or his advisers could lead to disastrous consequences. Doubling down on US and allied military capabilities directed against China, the overturning of longstanding and still highly relevant foundational understandings between Beijing and Washington, and bombastic posturing and threats that neglect the interests and views of US regional friends and allies do not constitute viable options for the United States’.
‘Such proposals or ideas are based on a serious misunderstanding of the attitudes, assumptions and interests motivating China, South Korea, Japan and other relevant actors. Far more effective and less dangerous alternatives to such actions exist that do not simply amount to a continuation of the status quo in every instance’. This is true, we need hardly add, both in the United States and in our region.
The hardening reality is that this is more than less likely to require what Swaine describes as ‘a mind-clarifying collision of Trumpian notions with reality’, in the form of the actions or reactions of China and other Asian powers, including US allies.
Australia and its partners in the region need to prepare for this at every step in their dealings with Trump and keep the big, constructive global goals in frame.
To Australia, Andrew Shearer, a security adviser to former Australian prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, offers the wise advice that whatever calls Trump might make as a payoff for honouring the refugee deal must be firmly resisted. Not to do so would simply play into Trump’s ‘rough-house negotiating tactics and set [Australia] up to have it done time and again’.
Now is the time for national consensus and firmness in managing the big threats that loom over Asia Pacific economic and political security. Australia is the location of strategic assets critical to the management of the United States’ global security system. Australia needs to be prepared to remind our friends in Washington, privately but forcefully, of this critical US dependence on its allies, including Australia, in projecting American power, not least through the ‘joint facilities’ in Australia so central to the partnership together. Above all, Australia — like other regional partners — must be absolutely clear that it will not be party to using these assets randomly or ill-advisedly.
The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.