27 May 2020
Since the election of Donald Trump, the United States has made two far-reaching changes to its foreign policy: it has officially labelled China a rival, and it has abandoned support for international agencies and rule-making. Both positions have hardened since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, the White House released a report detailing its new approach to China, which announced “a tolerance of greater bilateral friction”. Last month, Trump threatened to defund the World Health Organization.
It is the combination of these two positions that is widening the gulf between Australia and the United States and undermining their security alliance. The United States is creating a less ordered world, in which conflicts are resolved bilaterally and more powerful states benefit. This weakens Australia and empowers China, which is the world’s second-most powerful nation and has much to gain in a lawless environment that favours intimidation and bullying.
Trump has long been sceptical of multilateralism. He believes decision-making based on international consensus constrains the United States and puts it at a disadvantage. Other presidents have taken a different approach, supporting multilateral bodies and then using the United States’ clout to exert influence over them. The World Bank, for instance, has only ever been headed by an American.
But Trump’s position on China has changed significantly since the pandemic. Until recently, and in contrast with many of his more hawkish advisors, Trump’s main concern about China was economic: he believed that the United States’ large trade deficit meant it was being exploited. He was not particularly concerned about China’s domestic repression or its ambitions in Asia. In November, he described Xi Jinping as “an incredible guy” and “a friend”, and refused to back Congress’s support for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. “I stand with Hong Kong”, he said. “But we’re also in the process of making the largest trade deal in history.”
As Trump has come under pressure over the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, he has turned on Beijing. He now stands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others who see China as a threat that must be directly confronted. “We could cut off the whole relationship”, Trump told Fox Business recently.
Trump’s assault on China, and on agencies such as the WHO and the World Trade Organization, is prompting Canberra to pursue new foreign policy options that do not involve Washington. Australia recently backed the creation of a new trade umpire, the Multi-Party Interim Appeal Arbitration Arrangement, following Trump’s move to weaken the WTO. And at a meeting of the WHO’s governing body last week, Australia lobbied countries to support a resolution to launch an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic.
Significantly, both actions involved Canberra working alongside the European Union. In the Trump era, Australia’s worldview has moved much closer to that of the European Union. On Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “We only have a chance if we deal with China with collective discipline”. This, too, is Canberra’s plan, and Trump is trying to foil it.