28 October 2020
The US presidential election next Tuesday is seen by many Americans as the most consequential in living memory. It will determine how the country responds to its current health and economic crises, and whether Donald Trump’s populism and “America First” world view are aberrations or new norms.
But the election may be almost as important for Australia, whose foreign policies still revolve around a predictable and consistent United States. Its outcome will directly affect five key policy areas: trade, China, multilateralism, climate and ties with Asia.
Although the United States has become a less significant trading partner for Australia due to higher economic growth in Asia, it remains central to the global trading system. Australia has so far avoided being the target of US tariffs, but it may be affected by Trump’s recent efforts to undermine the World Trade Organization. Since the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Australia has joined Japan in keeping the TPP alive. However, Australia would benefit from the United States rejoining the agreement, which enables a more open Asian economy and does so without China’s involvement. Whether this could happen is unclear – the Democratic party base may be just as opposed to the TPP as the Trump administration.
The election won’t change the United States’ fundamental fear of China as an economic competitor. Although the spotlight has been on recent US–China conflicts over cybersecurity and the South China Sea, the relationship had already soured due to the impact of China’s rise on American manufacturing jobs. But the outcome of the election won’t be without consequence, as Trump and Biden have distinct approaches to managing China: a returned Trump administration might make sudden opportunistic deals with China, while a Biden administration might engage in long and intense internecine struggle over China policy. Australia has a much larger stake in continued economic cooperation with China, and it will remain squeezed by its different relationships with these two major powers.
Opinion polls show that only a narrow majority of Americans support the deep international engagement that characterised US foreign policy in the late twentieth century. It therefore remains unclear how much of the country’s former multilateral spirit can be rekindled now that the United States has withdrawn from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement and UNESCO. Scott Morrison dabbled in some Trumpian criticism of “negative globalism” last year, but his government has since recognised the importance of multilateral institutions in managing international issues like the coronavirus pandemic and health care in the Pacific. Australia would benefit if the United States came to a similar realisation and directed its efforts towards strengthening and improving these sometimes bureaucratic and politicised global bodies.
If Biden becomes president, his US$2 trillion climate plan could be the biggest symbolic shift in international policy to result from the election. And coupled with China’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060, it could amount to a radical reduction of carbon emissions. It might also lead to China and the United States cooperating on this existential issue, even if they remain competitors on other matters. This would be a double-edged sword for the Australian government, which could face trade sanctions and pressure to sharply reduce its own emissions.
Ties with Asia
Australia’s last foreign policy white paper and strategic defence update based Australia’s long-term outlooks on an assumption that the United States will return to a more traditional approach to engagement in Asia. If Biden is elected, this may or may not come to pass. While Biden is a traditionalist, the Democratic Party is split between those who support Obama-era policies like the “pivot to Asia”, which sought to strengthen America’s bilateral relations in the region, and reformers who prefer a tougher approach to protecting human rights and defending America’s technological leadership. However, Biden could at least be expected to attend Asian summits and listen, which would be a big step forward after the erratic approach to such events in the Trump years. It would also give Australia a useful partner in the room.