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In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, speculation surrounds the US’s ongoing role in Asian diplomacy. By Karen Middleton.

How will Trump’s US act in Asia?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Barack Obama meet at APEC in Lima, Peru.
Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP

In 2009, when Kevin Rudd unveiled his proposal to reorder the Asia-Pacific’s regional diplomatic architecture and set up an “Asian community” security body without first warning the regional neighbours, the then prime minister sent them scrambling to figure out what it meant.

Over in Washington, DC, the Obama administration was not impressed.

Australia’s newly arrived ambassador, Kim Beazley, felt the full force of American displeasure.

Recovering from two busted knees after falling on his icy driveway, Beazley was called in to the East Asian section of the State Department to be appraised of the United States’ view.

Among those there were “a couple of characters” from the president’s national security committee, present for what turned out to be quite a lecture.

“Excellency,” they told him. “We think that you need to convey to Mr Rudd how ridiculous we think his proposition is. You need to convey to Mr Rudd that we have consulted your Asian partners and they think that you are ridiculous. Indeed, they think you are an embarrassment. You are an embarrassment to your ally while you persist with the arguments that you are making around the region. Kindly, take a step back.”

Rather than stepping back, as Beazley described it this week, he stepped forward, busted knees and all.

“I’m not even going to bother reporting that home,” he says he told them.

“Why do you think we are doing this? Why do you think we have this idea of an Asian community? There are actually lots of reasons but one of the legs of that is that you are engaged.”

The Asian community idea that so annoyed Australia’s Asian neighbours was a direct challenge to the existing regional security body in South-East Asia, the East Asia Summit attached to the annual meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

According to Beazley, the Rudd government thought the ASEAN arrangement was drifting. It wanted the US actively involved on more than just trade, as it was through APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group.

Beazley said he told them Australia realised the ASEAN countries weren’t likely to adopt its proposal. “But there is a chance they might get serious enough about the East Asia summit to the point where they think they ought to include you. So our objective is to get you into South-East Asia, or East Asia as a participant.”

In the end, that is what happened. The US is now a participant in the East Asia summit. The Asian community idea faded away.

But in the wake of this month’s US presidential election, the government of Malcolm Turnbull is watching developments and trying to assess whether Donald Trump’s election will herald a US retreat from the region.

There are fears his pronouncements thus far could provoke a nuclear build-up involving Japan and South Korea, spark full-blown conflict in the South China Sea, see Russia flex its muscles more across Eastern Europe, or all – or none – of the above.

Turnbull returned from the latest APEC gathering in Lima, Peru, on Tuesday, having spent almost an hour with Barack Obama on his final presidential tour abroad and having canvassed the views of other regional leaders about how they should approach the incoming Trump era.

Indications are Trump will not adhere to the broad foreign and security policy parameters within which US presidents have operated for decades. And there is a great deal of concern about that.

Former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese says it would be fruitless to “scare ourselves” by jumping to conclusions on Trump’s direction. He expects this direction will reveal itself slowly.

But addressing the Australian Institute of International Affairs this week, Varghese warned these were now “uncharted waters”.

“This will put a premium on our being very clear-eyed about our national interests,” he said.

Varghese revealed the extent of the overhaul that could be ahead. “Who would have foreseen when we were putting together the recent defence white paper that we would be asking ourselves, ‘Has the United States elected as president someone who may dislodge the foundation stones of US strategic policy?’… Australia has been adept at navigating in the slipstream of power as our pivoting from the UK to the United States showed. But if the days of US primacy are drawing to a close, and I for one wouldn’t rush to a conclusion about that, we will need to adjust our policy settings.”

The Saturday Paper has been told that having prepared briefings on the implications of a President Trump or a President Hillary Clinton, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is now supplementing the Trump version with assessments of likely candidates for his most significant cabinet and other posts, and what they might mean for Australia.

Other assessments are already forming. Of senior adviser Steve Bannon, Beazley offered this on Monday: “He is an outright anti-Semitic fanatic.”

But speculation about General James “Mad Dog” Mattis as a possible defence secretary and Republican former presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a possible secretary of state is offering some reassurance.

“If we get General Mattis, he is extremely highly regarded in military circles,” says Dr John Blaxland, senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

“He is a very level-headed customer, a really unflappable guy. His views have got cachet because he speaks dispassionately but compellingly about issues, particularly in the Middle East.”

The appointment of Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser, however, is raising some red flags.

“He’s questionable,” Blaxland’s colleague, associate professor Dr Peter Dean, says. “He has been a Trump loyalist but he was removed from the Obama administration because of his erratic behaviour and his management style and of course some pretty forthright statements he’s said about Islam.”

There is one theme emerging among America-watchers inside and outside government: Australia is going to need to be ready to speak up.

Beazley says the Obama administration’s insertion of the US into the Asia-Pacific’s diplomacy looks set to be undone.

“The first thing you’ve got to say is that’s gone,” he said. “That is absolutely clear. Conducting diplomacy like that will not be done by any of the people who will be in authority in the administration which is coming into place. So the various individual parts of it will start to fall apart… We need to work out what we salvage and how we argue its salvaging.”

Launching a new book, Australia’s American Alliance, secretary of the defence department and former ambassador to the US Dennis Richardson warned against complacency.

“The alliance cannot be taken for granted,” he said. “Those who believe in its value must be prepared to engage in the debate and to make the case. Perhaps more so than at any time over the past 70 years, this is one of those times.”

He said Trump’s election “probably cuts more directly into our domestic politics than any presidential election in our lifetime”.

“We will make a big mistake if we allow the alliance to be held hostage to the perceptions of the success or otherwise of one administration or of one person,” Richardson said.

But so far, Australia’s arguments have fallen on deaf ears.

During Turnbull’s congratulatory phone call to Trump, he pressed the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal comprising 12 member countries. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is understood to have argued the same.

But just as Turnbull arrived home, Trump issued a video statement outlining his priorities for his first day in office. Withdrawing from the TPP is one of them.

The Saturday Paper has been told the Australian government believes something can be salvaged from the TPP ruins. In the meantime, APEC leaders agreed during private consultations in Lima to pursue an alternative multilateral trade deal with China, which was locked out of the TPP.

Turnbull has been careful about his language in relation to candidate Trump, and now his incoming administration. On matters relating to South-East Asia in particular, the government still hopes Australia can be a trusted, respected voice.

Academics, diplomats and government officials here are using the same phrase to describe the state of deep uncertainty Trump’s election has created: “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Another former ambassador to the US and countries across Asia, John McCarthy, warns against complacency.

“We have to be prepared to differ from them in a way which we have not been prepared to differ and perhaps have not needed to differ … since 2001.”

He warned this would take “political courage”.

“Traditionally we are not courageous in dealing with Washington,” McCarthy said. “The people in Washington are not nice people. This is not a nice regime.”

McCarthy also predicted the anti-Islamic campaign rhetoric is likely to have repercussions in Indonesia and Malaysia. “We may have to be discussing with our friends in Asia how to deal with the United States. Usually it’s been the other way around.”

Former US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich suggested this week that Trump’s “ad hoc” approach to diplomacy so far was keeping “everyone off balance – his friends and foes”.

He said that risked having them “misjudge, mistake, miscalculate” his intentions.

As the APEC summit concluded this week, not even President Obama could offer much insight into how many of Trump’s election promises might stay and how many would go.

Obama said he believed “reality” would force Trump to adjust. “That’s just the way this office works,” he said.

And beyond that?

“I can’t be sure of anything,” Obama said. “I think, like everyone else, we’ll have to wait and see.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 26, 2016 as "Asia specific". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.