Thank you, Donald Trump. You’ve given Australia the chance to forge new military ties in Asia — or maybe, just maybe, to strike out on our own.
When Australia voted for federation and independence at the 1899 referendum, our forebears still looked to Britain to save us from the ‘Yellow Peril’.
We relied on the motherland for protection and in 1914 lined up with her in the trenches against the evil Hun. We were loyal.
When Hitler wandered into Poland in 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies told the nation that Britain was at war and therefore Australia was at war. There was no debate.
Our faith lasted until Singapore. With the fall of the British stronghold we realised that the UK was not all-powerful.
Then as the Japanese headed our way, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted Australian soldiers to reinforce Britain’s position in Burma. Menzies’ successor, John Curtin, overruled Churchill and called troops home to defend our shores.
Curtin also urged Australia to increasingly look to the US for support. So much for the loyalty we showed to the UK.
World War II taught us that not only could Britain not defend us, but that it wouldn’t even try unless it was in its own interest.
The new alliance with the Americans was born when US General Douglas MacArthur based himself in Australia to help with our fight.
We switched loyalties, still in fear of the hordes that might attack us. The Americans were our new protectors. When the US went to Vietnam, we were there. Loyal. When they went to Iraq we followed, both times. Loyal. Afghanistan proved our loyalty yet again.
Surely they’d repay the debt, given the blood and treasure we invested in these American follies? Surely the US would not forget us in the name of its own national interest?
Times have changed
We learned over the past two weeks that America is not so loyal any more.
“America First”, the US President proclaimed at his inauguration. Donald Trump then proceeded to dump the Trans Pacific Partnership, thereby handing economic leadership in the Asia Pacific to the Chinese.
The China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is not just an economic agreement. Like the TPP, it is also a political agreement. By scrapping the TPP and pushing Australia, Japan and others to RCEP, Trump gave his first signal that ‘America First’ really means ‘America Alone’. China will grow to rule the Pacific, economically and politically.
And militarily? The US now asks Australia, The Philippines and Japan to join the US in ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises in the South China Sea. But why would we join them in poking the dragon when the US has just handed the region’s economy and politics to the Chinese? With the US exit, we need the Chinese more than ever before.
In the now infamous phone call between Trump and Malcolm Turnbull, we weren’t an ally. We were the ‘enemy’.
Mr Trump thinks the refugee deal is “dumb”. While many Australians have issues with our refugee policy, the one thing the President has revealed is that he can’t be counted on to keep a deal.
Not only that, in the way he handled the media, Mr Trump acutely embarrassed our PM. Foreign leaders do not do that to each other if they are friends.
So in all of this do we now think Mr Trump runs a country we can count on? Is ANZUS worth anything to his administration?
The President has clearly signalled a new isolationist policy in which defending Australia would only happen if it were clearly in the interests of the US to do so.
If Mr Trump determined it would not be, the ANZUS treaty could very well be worth nothing. He might leave us swinging in the wind.
Perhaps it is time for us to say “thank you” to the President.
Thank you, because we needn’t wait for our Singapore or our Churchill moment. Thank you, because he has warned us that we must now set our own independent military policy for the first time since Federation.
Australia, Japan, New Zealand, The Philippines and a whole host of regional countries now face this big question: If we cannot rely on the US, to whom do we turn?
The answer might be for the region to stand alone against a dominant China so as not to be caught on the wrong side of the economic or military war in which Trump and China may very well engage.
Wouldn’t that be an irony. After 200 years of fearing the ‘Yellow Peril’, Australia may be forced to hop in to bed with them.
Or perhaps we should turn the question the other way. To find an ally, you must first identify the enemy.
Perhaps we should wait patiently for the enemy to reveal themselves before we decide where to turn for help. It may well be time to follow the example of Switzerland and stay neutral and not allied at all.
Andrew Macleod is a former senior official of both the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and past CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. He is the author of A Life Half Lived by New Holland Press.