Donald’s Trump’s unexpected swerve on the one-China policy has reignited the post-election debate over Australia’s US-centred foreign policy, torn as it is between its top trading partner China and its main ally and security guarantor America.

Ever since Trump was elected president, Australia has, for the first time in more than a decade, been witnessing a split from the bipartisan view of both major parties that the US is central to Australian interests. Senator Penny Wong, who is the shadow foreign minister of the opposition Labor Party, has said that the uncertainty created by Donald Trump also presents an opportunity for Australia to question the centrality of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty, or ANZUS, to Australia. She is advocating stronger engagement in Asia by Australia.

Caught between China and US, what Australia has to fear from a Trump presidency

Former prime minister Paul Keating says Australia should “cut the tag” with the US and pursue better engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) instead. Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale says he believes the US is now a threat. Though disengagement from the US has long been central to Green policy, Trump’s election has given it a new impetus.

In this unexpected environment, Australia is also doing something rather unusual – calling for public submissions to its upcoming Foreign Policy White Paper, the first time since 2003.

While the jury is still out on the geopolitical outcomes for Australia during a Trump presidency, the economic concerns have a stronger basis. The broad consensus in Australia on a possible China-US trade war is that its knock-on effects would be felt swiftly and painfully in Australia. China is Australia’s main trading partner for exports, and two-way trade and investment between the US and Australia stands at A$1.5 trillion. China is only the country’s fifth largest investor but the volume of bilateral trade has stayed high even after commodities prices have fallen. An economic downturn in China would depress need for Australian commodities.

The loss of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump is bent on killing, is not ideal either given many of Australia’s exports and agricultural goods could have found new markets. Australia is a signatory to the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which does not include the US.

But China has increasingly been demanding more than mere trade. According to a November report in the Sydney Morning Herald from the Australia-China High Level Dialogue, one unnamed Chinese official told the paper: “US-China disputes should not automatically become China-Australia differences ... You need to accommodate China’s interests while developing your US ties.” Another official said economic ties were no longer enough to bind the two nations.

Some, like Chinese-Australian businessman Huang Xiangmo, have been more blunt. Australia would be “slaughtered” like a lamb without better ties to China, said Huang, described by the Australian Financial Review as having “strong links to the Chinese embassy”, whatever that means.

The comments came from an article he penned for a Mandarin-language website, in which he said: “We should be aware of the uncertainties that Trump brings to Asia and protect Australia’s national interest when we are confronting these uncertainties”, making the point that the call to Taiwan will seriously inflame problems in Asia. Given he is the head of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, his views may not be a revelation, but other groups with links to Beijing have also suggested Australia keep quiet over the South China Sea and not undertake any joint freedom of navigation patrols with the US.

Australians’ view of president Trump: depends when you ask

According to security experts, in a worst-case scenario, should the Chinese People’s Liberation Army retake or attempt to retake Taiwan and the US step in, Australia would not necessarily need to follow. ANZUS, in theory, means only direct attacks upon member nations need to be answered militarily by allies.

On the other hand, Australia has followed the US into every war since the second world war, often at great cost to itself.

Growing Chinese pressure to take clear sides on the one hand and an unpredictable US foreign policy on the other are forcing Australia to consider charting a more independent role on the world stage. Its defence spending may be an early indicator.

In February Canberra released its long-awaited Defence White Paper, committing to spend A$195 billion (US$146 billion) over 10 years on upgrading the defence force, with a strong naval focus.

The paper’s context was one of “all the way with the USA”, with a focus on rules and norms and a liberal order. With a president-elect who may have less faith in such things, Australia is in an unexpected situation, making it hedge its bets until it sees a clearer
picture.