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  • President Trump and the Implications for the Australia–US Alliance and Australia’s Role in Southeast Asia
  • William T. Tow (bio)

The accession of Donald Trump to the US presidency has triggered serious discussion within Australia’s policy community over the future of Australia–US security relations and Australia’s role in Southeast Asia. During his first days in office, President Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, an integral part of his predecessor’s “pivot strategy” towards Asia and an initiative strongly supported by the Australian government. The United States’ withdrawal from the TPP has led various Australian commentators to question Washington’s commitment to maintain a viable economic and strategic presence in the Asia Pacific.1 Such uncertainty is aggravated by Canberra’s growing disquiet over intensified tensions between China and the United States in the South China Sea. President Trump’s posture of challenging Chinese sovereign control over its man-made islands in the South China Sea has increased Australian concerns that it could soon face the nightmare of being compelled to “choose” between its largest trading partner — China — [End Page 50] and its long-term security ally — the United States — if the two Great Powers were to clash militarily in Southeast Asia’s critical maritime littorals.2

ASEAN Fragility and Australia’s Concerns

Shortly after Trump’s election victory, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating called for Australia to “cut the tag” of unmitigated support for US foreign policies and recognize that “our future is basically in the region around us, in Southeast Asia”.3 Since its inception in 2011, successive Australian governments had extended unqualified backing to the Barack Obama administration’s “pivot strategy” which was largely designed to reassure members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Washington was committed to playing a vigorous and sustained strategic and economic role in Southeast Asia in the face of China’s rising power.4 Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the TPP undercut Australia’s commitment to regional order-building by pursuing multilateral free trade arrangements and promoting an “inclusive” approach to shaping future rules for security conduct in Asia. Comments by Trump’s nominee for US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, during his confirmation testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee — that the new administration would reserve the prerogative to resort to military force to oppose Chinese territorial claims and would ask US regional allies to provide “backup” for any such military operation — exacerbated Australian uncertainties about future US policy directions. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated that her government’s position would remain consistent: the South China Sea dispute should be settled by international law. For the Australian government to respond to such “hypothetical situations” prematurely, Bishop noted, would not be appropriate.5 However, Keating and other Australian critics warned that any such US action would be tantamount to initiating a Sino–American war that would disrupt Australia’s vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs), devastate its economy, and render global security null and void. Australia, he insisted, should tell the Trump administration from the “get-go” that it would not be a part of such “adventurism”.6

ASEAN’s brittleness in the absence of a regionally engaged United States ranks as perhaps Australia’s most fundamental concern about Southeast Asia. As ASEAN’s self-appointed “locomotive”, Indonesia’s willingness to push back against China’s maritime [End Page 51] expansion southwards — in conjunction with China’s territorial claims embodied in the so-called “nine-dash line” — is viewed by Australian policy planners as increasingly critical. While Indonesia is not formally involved in the South China Sea dispute, and its control of the geographically critical Natuna Islands has not been formally challenged by Beijing, some Chinese maps have demarcated Indonesia’s 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as being partly inside the nine-dash line. In March 2013, an Indonesian patrol boat faced off against Chinese coastguard units that intervened when the former attempted unsuccessfully to capture Chinese fishermen operating illegally in Indonesia’s EEZ.7 Similar incidents subsequently occurred to the extent that by the end of 2016, Australian and Indonesian foreign and defence...