The World Policy blog is hosting a series of articles featuring global perspectives on the U.S. presidential election, the effects of which extend beyond partisanship and beyond our borders. Read previous articles from Turkey, Mexico, and Israel.
This article is part two of a two-part discussion of the election's implications for Australia. Read part one, which addresses perceptions of Donald Trump's candidacy.
By Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts
Australian perceptions of the United States presidential race and its impact on the country’s strategic environment have largely focused on the spectacle of Donald Trump’s unforeseen and controversial campaign. One consequence has been a tendency to view Hillary Clinton’s prospective foreign policy as something of a safety blanket—familiar, predictable, and ultimately status quo-oriented. While such a perception is not without evidence, there are elements of a President Clinton’s foreign policy that could run counter to Australian interests. The most pressing of these are Clinton’s approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the results of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia—both of which Australia has enthusiastically supported.
When travelling in Australia as secretary of state in 2012, Clinton stated that the TPP, which encompasses 12 nations and nearly 40 percent of global GDP, “sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open, free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” She has since reversed her judgement, most notably in her first debate with Donald Trump. Part of the explanation for this reversal undoubtedly lies in the imperative to combat both Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign and the wider rise of populist anti-free trade sentiment throughout the U.S. electorate. While such flip-flopping is understandable in the domestic political context, it has nonetheless proved problematic with American allies throughout Asia viewing reversal on TPP as a further sign of Washington’s retreat from its global leadership role. This stands in contrast to China’s commitment to a number of ambitious regional economic initiatives, such as the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Some Australian observers have suggested that such economic retreat could spill over into the broader geostrategic posture of the United States. Michael Wesley, director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, has noted that the TPP was aimed at making “sure that the US was getting economic benefits with its engagement with Asia and benefiting economically from its security investment.” A reversal, however, would not only symbolize an economic “retreat from the region by the US” but also feed into wider American debates about the costs and benefits of long-term security commitments in Asia.
While it may be hard to imagine Clinton, the chief architect of the Obama administration’s “pivot,” presiding over its reversal, her more hawkish foreign policy views on a range of issues make it possible that as president she could sacrifice regional economic initiatives on the altar of geostrategic competition.
She famously inserted the United States into the South China Sea dispute at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, not only declaring that Washington had a clear “national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” but also directly challenging Chinese claims by arguing that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features.”
While Australia strongly supports American efforts to safeguard a rules-based order in Asia, Clinton’s well-established track record of backing interventionist instruments, including the use of military force, to secure this goal potentially raises the stakes for Canberra’s commitment to its alliance with the United States and its economic interdependence with China.
A President Clinton’s likely response to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea may be particularly instructive. Hugh White has noted that China’s “construction of … new islands in the Spratlys is one more step in a strategy to present Washington with the invidious choice between confronting China and showing its weakness by letting down its allies.” Clinton’s hawkish attachment to the post-Cold War foreign policy consensus in Washington, with a core belief in the “indispensable” and benign nature of American primacy, suggests that she would be unlikely as president to yield to Chinese pressure. Critically, this approach could draw Australia, a primary American ally and beneficiary of the current order in Asia, into a conflict with China in the South China Sea.
In the end, Australia will have to adapt to the reality that its major ally will adopt foreign policy positions that accentuate rather than ameliorate uncertainty in the region. A Trump presidency, as we noted in part one, will likely see Washington attempt to maintain American primacy without responsibility, while a Clinton presidency will likely see a more robust defense of American primacy and leadership. Both will present unique challenges for Canberra to navigate, and Australia will no doubt have to readjust its sails depending on which way the country wants to steer.
Michael Clarke is an associate professor at the National Security College, Australian National University, where he specializes in international security, particularly in Asia. He is the author of numerous academic publications and his journalistic writing on international security issues has been published by the Wall Street Journal, CNN, The National Interest, and The Diplomat.
Anthony Ricketts is a doctoral student at the National Security College, Australian National University. His PhD dissertation is focused on United States grand strategy in the Middle East and has contributed commentary to The National Interest, Canberra Times, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, and the Huffington Post.
[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore]