100 days of Donald Trump: The relationship with Australia

0:00

How have trade, security and diplomacy been shaped for Australia and the Asia Pacific region in the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency?

The first 100 days of Donald Trump's presidency have seen Australia's relationship with its ally tested, with Trump quickly signifying it would not be business as usual, particularly when it came to trade and diplomacy.

SBS News takes a look at how some of the key issues have played out.

America first

When Trump was sworn in as United States president on January 20, 2017, Australia's ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, was pictured trying to get a better look from his seat in the back row.

On stage, the 45th president of the US was telling the millions of people watching worldwide that "from this day forward, it's going to be only America first".

Now, 100 days on, experts are divided on how deeply that foreign policy mantra has been adopted.

Aaron Connelly, from the Lowy Institute for International Policy, says the reality so far has not lived up to the rhetoric.

"I think it's mostly still unclear, but some of the fears earlier in the administration that the policy would be very nationalist, that it would really be dominated by the America first crowd in the White House, those have not come to fruition," Mr Connelly said.

"Actually, I think in the last few weeks we've seen a more cosmopolitan group of advisors in the White House begin to get the upper hand.

"The key turning point was the dismissal of Mike Flynn, the former national security advisor, in mid February."

Brendon O'Connor, from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said it remains to be seen how closely the Trump administration will adhere to the nationalist agenda.

"Trump's foreign policy is a work in progress," he said.

"You're never quite sure which direction it's going to go in from one day to the next, so it's hard to say that it's the same as what he promised on the campaign or in his inaugural address.

"There's been twists and turns, particularly on China. I thought last year, from what was said in the campaign, that it was going to be a much tougher, more antagonistic relationship with China. We just haven't seen that to date."

Trading future

Three days into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order formally withdrawing the US from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, following through on a promise from his campaign.

Former Labor foreign minister, Bob Carr, says the move put the two allies at odds.

"His [Trump's] interests are just different from our," he said.

"This is just something that Australians have to absorb.

"The US president has got America pursuing a different agenda to one that suits us. The allies are at odds.

"We're a great trading nation, we trade a great proportion of what we produce and it's in Australia's interests that our rural workforce can see its products sold on world markets.

"We're an open economy, we're a trading economy, always have been, always will be. He [Trump] is opposed to more open markets."

Mr Carr says the bigger issue though is the threat of a trading war with China, although he's cautiously optimistic that can be avoided.

Watch: Trump talks up his first 100 days

0:00

"He may be just smart enough to understand he's got to work at the relationship with China and to therefore drop the notion of a trade war," he said.

"There's just a sense that he might understand that and also understand that cooperation with China is needed over North Korea."

Mr Connelly says trade appears to be the issue where the America first proponents have had, and continue to have, the most influence.

"It's not just withdrawing from the TPP, it's also the decision to identify 16 countries for additional scrutiny of their trading practices," he said.

"And these threats to withdraw from NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which are made and then quickly withdrawn, suggest that on trade at least there's still quite a bit of political influence with the America first crowd."

Mr O'Connor says the scrapping of the TPP will lead to shifting trading alliances, although the full impacts will take years to filter through.

"What is significant about America pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is that it gives China an opportunity to build stronger economic relations in the Asia Pacific, which is basically playing into China's hands," he said.

"It's a bit of an own goal in some regards. The Obama administration wanted to set it [the TPP] up as a way of creating an economic wall against China, so it's kind of in keeping with Trump's actual practice, which has been relatively beneficial to China since he's been president."

Mr O'Connor says it is not in Australia's interests for trading relations to break down between the US and China.

"Australia has done really well out of not choosing sides, of saying we can have our strong economic relationship with the US and China, and we can also have our strong strategic relationship with the United States," he said.

"We don't really have to compromise. We can have our cake and eat it too and that's been a good position for Australia.

"Australia likes the status quo and an upending of the status quo would not be at all good."

Watch: White House Press Corp fires back

0:00

Regional security

With tensions with North Korea escalating once again, fresh questions are being raised about the traditional US role as protector in the region.

Mr Connelly says he doesn't believe fears a Trump administration would turn its back on alliances in the Asia Pacific region have been realised.

"There was a lot of fear that Trump would abandon America's allies, but on NATO and in the Pacific region we've actually seen his appointees, Secretary Mattis of Defence and Secretary Tillerson, reinforce those alliances," he said.

"And Trump himself welcoming [Japan's Shinzō] Abe to Mar-a-Lago just a couple of weeks after he was inaugurated seems to suggest that the alliances are actually here to stay."

But Mr Carr believes the Trump presidency has made Australia less secure.

"I hate to say it, but I think we are living at a great risk of a nuclear exchange, launched in a burst of anger and resentment, because this is the man the American electoral system chose to be president," he said.

"You don't judge a US president on his first 100 days, you judge him on how he handles his crisis, his serious crisis, John F Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, for example.

"I've got deep reservations about how someone with Trump's temperament handles a serious crisis, as North Korea may be shaping up to be.

"Now the cool headedness of Obama, or the first George Bush, Reagan or John F Kennedy, I had much more confidence in those men to guide us through to an avoidance of war."

Mr O'Connor says the administration has left the region more uncertain when it comes to matters of security.

"The problem with Trump for Australia is that you don't really know what his position will be on North Korea," he said.

"You don't really know if he's likely to overreact or maybe reverse his tough talk on China and Japan as well.

"Because he's so unpredictable, planning for the future must be very difficult for our leaders. And [in terms of] getting too close to Trump, I think it's pretty dangerous because you don't really know what you're in for and you don't really know what kind of ally the United States is going to be."

Diplomatic tensions

Diplomatically, the relationship between Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull got off to a rocky start, with Trump abruptly ending a now infamous phone call.

The animosity was over the agreement by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Naru.

Trump reportedly called his exchange with Mr Turnbull "the worst call by far" and later tweeted "I will study this dumb deal".

Mr O'Connor says there will be a lot of attention on how the meeting is perceived when the leaders meet face-to-face for the first time in New York this week.

"Well you hope it would be closer to the way Trump treated the Japanese leader and the Chinese leader, rather than how he treated [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel," he said.

"You don't want the imagery of a lack of a handshake.

Watch: Trump rallies NRA ‘friends’

0:00

"I imagine there will be a lot of behind-the-scenes action by friends of Australia to just make it look a smooth, business-as-usual meeting, with the usual platitudes about how Australia has a special relationship with the United States.

"Behind the scenes though, we know that Trump is unpredictable, he's not Mike Pence who was here last week. He's a more volatile figure. He's a more unknown figure in many regards."

Mr Carr is hopeful Mr Turnbull will be firm in the meeting, which is taking place on board the World War II aircraft carrier, the USS Intrepid.

"On behalf of the Australian people, I just beg our prime minister not to go into grovel mode as some previous Australian prime ministers have when they've met US presidents," he said.

"The Australian people have great reservations about this president of the United States and it would be embarrassing all round if Prime Minister Turnbull went overboard in praising him or talking up the alliance side by side with Trump.

"I think a bit of dignified distance from our ally at this time, with this lousy leader, would capture the aspirations of the Australian people."

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch