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Posted on 24 Apr 2018 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

JONATHAN PEARLMAN (Ed) Trump in Asia: The new world disorder. Australian Foreign Affairs 2. Reviewed by Mathilde Montpetit

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Trump in Asia is recommended reading for anyone interested in the machinations of Asia-Pacific politics.

The brand-new Australian Foreign Affairs journal, now on its second issue, has much to offer for those seeking a wonkish view of how Australia’s foreign policy insiders are reacting to the election of Donald Trump.

The answer seems to be: not well. Or at least, after reading this issue, one can imagine the question on the lips of everyone at DFAT on 9 November 2016: ‘What the hell do we do now?’

The ill-disciplined hawkishness of the Trump administration is clearly as anxiety-provoking for all of the authors in the journal as it is for everyone else. David Kilcullen, a US-based counterterrorism expert who contributes a ‘Letter from Washington’, explains that:

… the new administration shows a high degree of policy continuity with its predecessors, but a disturbing lack of consistency across its various branches.

The fact that Rex Tillerson, former Secretary of State, and HR McMaster, the former National Security Advisor, who both figure in this issue, are now gone — and steel tariffs had not even been whispered of when the issue likely went to print — serves to underscore the extent to which Australian analysts are now reacting to events in Washington beyond their expectations. Kim Beazley and L Gordon Flake, who discuss North Korea, would certainly have much to say about recent Homeland Security appointee John Bolton’s belief in preemptive war with North Korea and the recent news that Tillerson’s likely replacement, Mike Pompeo, met secretly with Kim Jong-un’s representatives. No one seems to know what will come next, except that the United States can no longer be relied upon.

The four principal essays argue that Trump’s America necessitates a more independent Australia. This would certainly be a historic reversal; after World War II, Australia, arguably, turned from one ‘daddy’ to another, trading British cultural, military and economic ties for American ones.

But Trump has declared that he’s kicking the kids out of the house, and Australia is feeling adrift.

Michael Wesley, the dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at ANU, whose essay opens the collection, neatly sums up what the United States used to mean to Australia:

The Western allies of the United States interpreted American might in moral terms: as the natural outcome of the evolution of history towards democracy, the rule of law, free markets, cosmopolitan equality and the globalised concord of nations.

But of course, Trump is the first president since Harry Truman who seems not to have a ‘doctrine’ towards the rest of the world. Instead, the message is America First, which means that, as Wesley says, ‘Trump presents a vision of American power with no legitimating purpose beyond advancing specific US interests’.

An America that professes itself to be unconcerned with the fate of its allies is a scary prospect, especially after nearly 75 years of its paternalistic concern for what is going on in the rest of the world. Australia, since World War II, has certainly been shaped by American foreign policy, for better and for worse.

Economic, military and cultural ties with the US have supported Australia’s economic expansion and helped maintain this relatively small country as a power in the Pacific. Protecting Australian autonomy did not come for free: America’s rapaciousness has also embroiled Australia and its soldiers in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq.

The close links between Australia and the US military are unlikely to be broken any time soon, even with the storm brewing in Washington. Still, the inclusion of Andrew Davies’s thorough and data-driven analysis of the costs of Australian military self-reliance in this issue does point to some acknowledgment of Trump’s rhetoric about allies needing to bear their own military weight.

Davies turns to the Falklands War to illustrate the potential worst-case scenarios facing Australia. Since Argentina and the UK bought planes and arms from both France and the United States, the latter powers each had to pick a side in the conflict. They ultimately chose to side with the big power (the UK) against the middle power (Argentina), and Argentina was unable to resupply or maintain its planes. Whether Australia needs to worry about being in such a situation depends, Davies says, on three factors: ‘the costs of varying degrees of self-reliance, on where Australia thinks it will fight its next war, and on who the enemy is likely to be’. He settles on Indonesia as the most likely suspect, which is certainly an exciting teaser for the journal’s next issue (theme: Indonesia).

If the Pacific is fading from American view, what’s next for the region? As Jonathan Pearlman, the editor, lays out in the introduction, ‘the power balance in Asia is changing, Trump fuels the instability, and countries’ (read, China) ‘are reacting’.

When it comes to China, Australian diplomats are accustomed to dealing with just the one ‘inscrutable’ and unreliable superpower. China’s insular political system means foreign observers can often only speculate as to their intentions in the South China Sea or as regards to North Korean regime stability. Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ seemed designed to calm Australian, Japanese and South Korean governments who might be unwilling or unable to stand up to China’s military might alone.

But Trump has made the US another cipher for Canberra — and, indeed, Washington DC — to decode.

Wesley argues that in this new reality, a more ‘Asian’ approach to power (Beijing’s or Washington’s) is needed. Instead of allegiance to the United States for cultural or moral reasons, he argues for a sort of Bismarckian realpolitik, where alliances are made for merely practical, not moral or ethical reasons. As he says, ‘Australian policymakers must acknowledge the overwhelming reality that our future will increasingly be shaped by Beijing, not Washington.’

All this is clear enough. But what will Asia look like, culturally and economically, with Beijing as the big man on the block?

The process has already begun; Wesley argues convincingly that Asia-Pacific regional organisations have become ‘mechanisms that Beijing [uses] to accustom the region to China’s power and preferences’, and that those preferences may include expansion into other countries’ territory, even beyond the South China Sea.

The journal’s biggest gap is its lack of real engagement with this question; it still considers China’s rise as a potential threat rather than something that is already underway and is already relevant to Australia’s economic and military sovereignty. If it is a question of Australia accepting Chinese regional supremacy, then what does that actually mean? If there is something important about the liberalising and democratising instincts, if not reality, of American hegemony, what happens to those virtues in Asia and the Pacific when China takes the reins? Or, if all that matters is that there’s a superpower keeping order, can an Australia under China’s protection thrive?

Perhaps, with the rise, already, of fears about undue Chinese influence, those questions aren’t something that the journal’s authors want to consider. China clearly has an interest in exerting soft power outside of its traditional sphere of influence; in East Africa, China has rolled out an initiative to build a ‘new Silk Road’ and has begun to exert proto-colonialist pressure on local governments. In return for Chinese infrastructure investment, Kenyan authorities have sold off mining rights, and there was a recent outcry in Zambia after Chinese nationals were added to the local police force in Lusaka. Australia is already concerned about Chinese influence on domestic politics, from Sam Dastyari, to Turnbull’s funding laws, to the buying-up of farmland and the Sydney housing market, but though each of the authors contends with China filling the gap of a retreating US, the ‘Then what?’ remains unspoken.

Fantasies about impeachment notwithstanding, Trump is here to stay, and his effect on Asia, tortuously, remains a mystery to nearly everyone. Australian Foreign Affairs makes a valiant attempt at trying to figure out what role Australia can and should play in this brave new world, and is recommended reading for anyone interested in the machinations of Asia-Pacific politics.

Jonathan Pearlman (Ed) Trump In Asia: The New World Disorder. Australian Foreign Affairs 2. Black Inc 2018 PB 128pp $22.99.

Mathilde Montpetit is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the Harvard International Review. Follow her on Twitter at @mathildeagm.

You can buy Trump in Asia from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

1 Comment

  1. It would be worthwhile to get someone to do a piece of China’s “oppression narrative”. That the West exploited and impoverished China until the Communist Party began the process of restoring it to its rightful place of world leadership.

    It helps make sense of China’s actions. We will need, by the looks of the way things are developing, to be as familiar with it as we are with the US “manifest destiny” myth.