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In the Trump era, former leaders challenge US ties

A group of leading Australians, including several former heads of federal departments involved in strategy and eight former ambassadors, as well as several academics, are urging the Government to move towards a foreign policy that is more independent of the country’s strategic partner, the United States.

Details of the group’s submission, disclosed to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, coincided with a strong reaffirmation by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson of Trump administration support for the ANZUS treaty, “reiterating  our intent to strengthen our military alliances, our economic partnerships, and our diplomatic cooperation.” This called a telephone exchange with Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop.

The group, which includes Richard Woolcott, former DFAT secretary; Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence; John Menadue and Michael Keating, former secretaries in the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet; Geoff Miller, former director of the Office of National Assessments, and Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University, stop short of endorsing Greens’ leader Richard Di Natale’s call to tear up the ANZUS treaty. However, they make it clear that the forthcoming White Paper on foreign policy should steer a more independent line. The group, which has sent a submission to the foreign minister Julie Bishop, includes no business, financial or political leaders.

It says the election of Donald Trump as United States president has unsettled the global order, confronting Australia with urgent policy choices. They say: “Australia faces a dilemma between a ‘rules-based’ order on the one hand and ‘tribal’ solidarity with our Western allies on the other. The former is now a better option for Australian interests.

“Few analysts dispute that the U.S. faces more challenges every year, and that America will before long have to concede to sharing strategic space with China, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. In this situation, we need to ensure that choices and decisions that Australia makes are based on our own careful evaluation, and not simply on a perceived need to follow our alliance partner.”

The 21st Century Group, as they call themselves, casts doubt on whether the U.S. would adhere to ANZUS treaty obligations, despite recent assurances from the Trump administration that it intends to do so. It says this supposition is unsustainable:

“The assumption that the U.S. will indefinitely be willing and able to defend Australia is unsustainable, and this should be made clear to the Australian public. The benefits of the alliance to Australia are often invoked:  access in Washington, discounted military equipment, training, intelligence, nuclear deterrence, and military and surveillance bases. These, however, are not cost-free. The base at Pine Gap contributes to internet interception, drone strikes, and early warnings of attack, but both it and the U.S. marine base in Darwin make Australia a potential target and a possible participant in wars not of our choosing. The US might protect these assets in a crisis, but not necessarily the rest of Australia.”

Reiterating Professor White’s refrain that Australia has to choose between its strategic ally, the U.S., and its economic partner, China, the group praise the Government. “By refraining from provocative moves in the South China Sea, in spite of our close inter-operability with the U.S., Australia has chosen a prudent course”.

The Group concludes: “If Australia follows these tentative moves with more entrepreneurship and investment in the countries of East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, we will gradually identify more with their interests and they with ours. A further rules-based opportunity is presented by the East Asia Summit and other ASEAN forums, whose members, including Australia, have all ratified the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC).

Incorporating key phrases from the UN Charter, the TAC commits its parties (including Australia, China, and the U.S.) to refrain from threatening or using force against each other. At this time it is more than ever important for Australia to reaffirm the Charter’s provision against the unilateral use of force to settle international disputes. We have a new opportunity to invoke the Charter and the TAC in the interests of peace in our region, to hold others to them, and to ensure that our own behaviour upholds them.”

While neither the ruling Coalition or the Labor opposition have any intention of seeking changes to the ANZUS treaty, both parties are extremely uneasy at the prospect of Donald Trump asking the Royal Australian Navy to join U.S. patrols in the South China Sea. Relations between the U.S. president and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull got off to a bad start when Trump cut short a call that was scheduled to last an hour, when the Australian leader was trying to raise a number of security and trade issues.

For the moment diplomats, true to form, are papering over the cracks but there is little doubt that Australia needs a hard rethink of its foreign policy. The Gillard government-inspired White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century was more aspirational than practical, and now both Canberra and South East Asian democracies need to get together to rethink their strategy in the uncertain and unnerving Trump era.