That queasy feeling Down Under over Aussie-US relations

SYDNEY • US President Donald Trump long ago named his ambassadors to the Bahamas (the political donor Doug Manchester) and the Vatican (the political spouse Callista Gingrich).

So on a trip the other day to Canberra, I asked whether the leader of the United States had nominated an emissary to this important if sleepy capital.

Not yet, said Mr Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute, a non-partisan international policy think-tank that was hosting me for the week. That wasn't completely unexpected, given the pace of State Department bureaucracy. Still, he added, more of a delay would begin to have the colour of an insult.

A visit to the Australian War Memorial is a moving reminder that Australians have fought alongside Americans in nearly all of its wars over the past century: In Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and - to this day - Afghanistan. More than 100,000 Aussies perished in these efforts, a staggering sacrifice for a country with less than 8 per cent of America's population.

So what's the administration doing to cultivate the alliance?

On the surface, it's business as usual. The Australian and US militaries train together; US spy agencies look at the same intelligence through the so-called Five Eyes arrangement. A 2005 free trade agreement, which Mr Trump hasn't yet threatened to pull out of, generates a two-way channel worth north of US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion).

Admiral Harry Harris, who runs the US Pacific Command, has also seen his name floated for the ambassador job. He would be a smart choice. But the appearance of normality masks deep unease. Australian security officials seem to have a pretty good read on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's mindset; it's his US counterpart whose instincts and motives they find baffling and worrisome.

Canberra also keeps a close eye on the Chinese and their growing encroachments in the region. Whether Mr Trump has any serious interest in systematically resisting Beijing's advances is much less clear. One nagging worry among officials here is that Mr Trump won't attend key regional summits in Vietnam and the Philippines in November, mainly because he'll find them boring.

If so, that would be another Trumpian signal - the first was Mr Trump's disastrous withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement - that the US is slowly checking itself out of the western Pacific.

The North Korean crisis may dominate US attention, mostly because nuclear weapons are involved and Pyongyang can now threaten Seattle as well as Guam. But the larger game is a struggle of influence against Beijing.

Professor Hugh White, a strategic studies expert at Australian National University, thinks it is a game the Chinese are likely to win. They are of the region, after all, while Americans are not. In any potential confrontation, whether over Korea or Taiwan or the South China Sea, Americans would inevitably ask themselves: What's the point? What are we doing over there? Why risk Los Angeles for Seoul or Taipei?

I would like to think Prof White is too pessimistic, but I'm not so sure.

He doesn't mention it in our conversation, but Beijing has another advantage over the US - a lack of scruple, whether it comes to political bribes, military threats or diplomatic subversion.

Australia's scandal of the year concerns two Chinese-born property developers, both allegedly connected to the Chinese Communist Party, who funnelled over US$6 million to Australian politicians of various parties.

Senator Sam Dastyari, a rising star in the Australian Labor Party, was accused last year of mouthing the pro-Beijing line on the South China Sea dispute for fear of losing a six-figure donation.

Historically, America's strategic advantage over China lay in its combination of reliability, likeability and preponderant military and economic strength. It was friendly. It dealt squarely. It was the future.

But America's naval mastery in Asia is increasingly in doubt. The US withdrawal from the TPP creates a trade void for China to fill. As for square dealing, one of the reasons Mr Trump's truculent January phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so shocked Australians is that the US President appeared to renege on Mr Barack Obama's pledge to resettle 1,250 refugees held in Australian detention centres. It was only this week that the US took in the first 54.

Australians know that Mr Trump, too, shall pass. But an erratic US president can do a lot of damage in four or eight years. That goes especially for one who seems to think that the post-war liberal international order was just another sucker's deal conducted at America's expense, and whose transactional instincts allow little room for the claims of shared values, much less the memory of common battlefield graves.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Lowy Institute director Michael Fullilove makes the point that Australia "needs to prosecute a larger foreign policy", not least by drawing closer to Asia's other democracies as "an important hedge against the dual hazards of a reckless China and a feckless United States". That's smart policy for Australia - and a sad comment on how America's friends view it in the age of Trump.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'That queasy feeling Down Under over Aussie-US relations'. Subscribe