By Rohana Prince —
President Donald Trump’s first two years in office have left U.S. allies like Australia in a tough spot — always worrying that a tweet will undermine promises made, funds committed, and actions undertaken despite reassurances from the administration. This, combined with an uncertain strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region, has made Australia feel insecure.
Australia should feel comforted though—U.S. policy is moving in the right direction. But President Trump needs to do more to articulate a strategic narrative that highlights U.S. policy direction and reassures U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific of the United States’ commitment both to them and the region.
Uncertain times in international affairs—and 2019 looks like it will be filled with uncertainty — are what alliances are built for. They are an insurance policy against insecurity; an effort to provide assurances of protection and mutual support to the parties involved.
The United States’ alliance with Australia is supposed to be exactly this. But, pressure from external and internal forces — heightened strategic competition between the United States and China, and President Trump — is making Australia a more cautious ally.
The strategic competition between the United States and China is creating challenges for the United States’ allies worldwide, Australia included. It causes them to have to weigh up their economic interests with China versus their security and indeed trade interests with the United States. Allies must consider how their actions and decisions will be seen by either their biggest economic partner or security guarantor, and what reactions these decisions may provoke.
This dynamic is more difficult for Australia because of the contradictory messages coming out of Washington, from the stated policies and senior officials on the one hand, and President Trump on the other. The mixed messages make it unclear what the United States wants of its long-term ally in the context of the strategic competition.
The Trump administration’s key strategic policy documents—the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the National Defense Strategy (NDS)—say that allies are invaluable, and the United States is looking to work more closely with them in the Indo-Pacific region. They give some idea of what the United States expects from its allies: contribute modern capabilities and access to bases, and be willing to confront shared threats, increase defense spending, and share information. For Australia in particular, the NSS looks forward to greater cooperation within the quadrilateral grouping of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States, and to working together in the Pacific Islands.
The vice president and secretaries of state and defense have generally echoed the tone and ideas of the NSS and NDS. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2018, Vice President Pence emphasized the closer ties the U.S. was building with its allies, particularly Japan and Australia. Then, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in his letter of resignation that “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.”
Recent announcements also have reflected this sentiment, such as the cooperation with Australia and Papua New Guinea to modernize Lombrum Naval Base and a Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding between Australia, Japan, and the United States to operationalize the Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific.
But these alliance actions and the rhetoric from others in the administration have not often been matched by President Trump’s words or behavior during his first two years in office. There was, of course, his first phone call with then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, a call concentrated on immigration issues and not conducted in the friendly manner that one would expect between two close allies. President Trump also took his time appointing a new ambassador to Canberra and initially included Australia in the list of countries targeted with certain trade tariffs (though this was eventually reversed).
More generally, President Trump has been critical of U.S. allies worldwide, seeing them as taking advantage of the United States. And he has not made a consistent effort to explain how allies like Australia fit into his vision for the Indo-Pacific region.
Ultimately, of the messages coming out of Washington, it is President Trump’s that matter in the near term. As his announcement of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria most recently showed, the key foreign policy decisions are ultimately made by Trump alone. One can understand, then, why Australia might feel uneasy despite the long-standing alliance.
But, as we tick over into the third year of Trump’s presidency, there are positive signs that President Trump’s views might be shifting.
On December 31, 2018, President Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) into law. ARIA is significant for the United States-Australia alliance for four main reasons. First, it pledges to “develop and commit to a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific.” Second, it outlines the key objectives of that vision. Third, it specifically references the alliance, recommitting to it and calling for the strengthening of ties between the United States and Australia. Fourth, and most importantly, this was a bipartisan act adopted by Congress and signed by President Trump. Take this together, and it would appear that President Trump agrees the United States needs a plan for the Indo-Pacific, and one which includes Australia.
It is true that ARIA may not be more than a statement from Congress in the end, and with the power of the executive branch, President Trump might take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. The president did choose to sign the Act, however, indicating some level of support for it, or, at the very least, no immediate opposition to it.
President Trump should certainly do more to reassure Australia and other allies by using speeches and other statements to build on ARIA and put forward a strong strategic narrative about how partners can contribute to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific. But, for now, Australia can take some heart from ARIA that the United States is focused on the Indo-Pacific and is thinking about the place of the United States-Australia alliance in its strategy for the region.
Ms. Rohana Prince is the current Thawley Fellow with the Alliances and American Leadership Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Lowy Institute. This piece first appeared as a CSIS Commentary here.