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How can Australia and the UK work more closely if Donald Trump is elected?

The determination in Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) to align their respective geostrategies through AUKUS and their respective bilateral relationships has not been as fervent for many years – even decades. This week’s AUKMIN meetings between Britain and Australia, where a Status of Forces Agreement has been signed, and further cooperation established in relation to nuclear-powered submarines, is evidence of that fact. The three countries seek cooperation to shape the international order from the Indo-Pacific to the Euro-Atlantic, reflecting their shared geostrategic worldviews. But clouds loom on the horizon. The prospective return of Donald Trump to the White House may alter the character of America’s bilateral relationships with Australia and the UK, particularly if his administration retrenches or adopts a more unilateral stance for dealing with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). What should Australia and the UK do if their trilateral partner changes? How can they protect their interests in a Trumpian world? We asked ten experts in today’s Big Ask.

George Brandis, Australian National University

In the event of a second Trump presidency, this author expects the Australia-US relationship to remain strong. Undergirded by the ANZUS treaty, now in its eighth decade, Australia sees America as its principal partner in the Indo-Pacific and its most important security guarantor. That will not change if Trump returns.

The AUKUS pact has bipartisan support in Congress; this author also expects that support to continue under a second Trump presidency.

Australians viewed with some concern some of Trump’s remarks about his view of America’s NATO obligations. We expect to be at the forefront of America’s traditional allies in encouraging the US to maintain its role of global leadership, not retreat into isolationism, and maintain firm support – including, where necessary, military assistance – to democracies which find themselves under attack from authoritarian states. 

Events in Ukraine and Israel are the primary current examples of the need for strong American engagement. In the Indo-Pacific, the PRC’s belligerent attitude to Taiwan will be among our most significant concerns; Australia will encourage a Trump administration to use its diplomatic and strategic weight to discourage the PRC from seeking to alter the status quo.

The Australia-US relationship is one of the closest and most stable of the post Second World War era; we should expect that to continue under a second Trump presidency.

Alex Bristow, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Australia and the UK can and should cooperate to shape a possible second Trump presidency, and that work must start now. 

Firstly, British and Australian leaders should leverage their membership of Trump’s ‘two percenters’ club – those allies paying their dues as a share of national income – to rebut the false choice between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security. Australia’s announcement at AUKMIN 2024 that it will further assist Ukraine by joining the UK and Latvia-led drone coalition shows Trump that his most dependable, two-percenter allies are already working across regions to solve Washington’s security headaches.  

Similarly, Australia and the UK must persuade Trump and sceptical advisers like Elbridge Colby that the US will make a return on AUKUS.  

Speaking in Canberra this week, Grant Shapps and Richard Marles, the British and Australian defence ministers respectively, showed the way by acknowledging that industrial capacity across the AUKUS countries has waned woefully, but pledged billions in new investments, including by Australia in US shipyards, to fix it.  

But even Trump needs more than dollar-denominated declarations to buy into AUKUS. Beijing is already supporting AUKUS’ spoilers, so the UK and Australia must ante up on public diplomacy to make a wider strategic case that also flatters Trump’s public profile. Framed artfully, AUKUS could be Trump’s kind of deal.  

Elizabeth Buchanan, Modern War Institute

Britain and Australia have enduring common interests across the Arctic and the Antarctic spheres. As does the US. There is an unexploited avenue of potential for the three states to bolster their polar futures. But this requires some artful navigation of their differing positions on international law in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Since the establishment of Australia’s Antarctic Territory claim, the UK and Australia have supported each other’s logistic efforts, with the British Antarctic programme utilising Hobart as its Antarctic gateway city. Washington joins Canberra and London as original Antarctic Treaty signatories; all three hold voting rights in Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.

Of course, all have their positions regarding Antarctic territorial claims protected by the Treaty and an enduring interest in the Antarctic Treaty System continuing to uphold the status quo. Yet Washington does not recognise the British or Australian claims – posing future challenges should the Treaty collapse.

In the Arctic, all three are signatories to the Spitsbergen Treaty (Svalbard Treaty) which affords economic rights to all parties. Russia’s re-entry onto Svalbard could pose a threat to these rights in the future. Washington is a littoral Arctic state thanks to Alaska and holds one of the eight seats of the Arctic Council (the region’s sole governance forum). Unlike Australia and Britain, it has not ratified UNCLOS, so departs from its Arctic-neighbours in its inability to submit a claim via UNCLOS to the resource-rich seabed of the Arctic Ocean. Britain holds observer status to the Council. Australian resource firms are operating in mineral-rich Arctic states.

In this context, principle initiatives for closer engagement on the polar frontiers between Britain and Australia include enhanced search and rescue training in polar zones, a committed uplift to Antarctic research collaboration, and the fostering of increased Australian efforts in Arctic geostrategic affairs.

Kate Clayton, La Trobe Asia

This week’s AUKMIN meetings has signified increased cooperation on climate change and energy with a ‘commitment to develop a joint climate action plan by AUKMIN 2025’. This follows the trend of the UK, US and Australia looking to cooperate more closely on climate change at the bilateral level; last year’s AUSMIN meetings saw a ‘third pillar’ spawn in the alliance centred around climate change cooperation with the creation of the ‘Climate, Critical Minerals, and Clean Energy Transformation Compact (Compact)’ to support US-Australia climate and energy cooperation in light of Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. 

Trump, however, is unlikely to continue Biden’s focus on climate action at the bilateral or international level. The impact his climate denialism and domestic focus will have on the US’ climate and foreign policy will be felt globally.

This means Australia and the UK should look to increase bilateral climate cooperation as a result. Currently, Australia and the UK have a Clean Technology Partnership and the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement supports clean energy opportunities. Australia and the UK could further institutionalise whole-of-government climate cooperation through a more substantial agreement and greater foreign policy alignment, something of particular relevance with cuts to climate diplomacy under the current British government of Rishi Sunak.

Secondly, if there is decreased US engagement in the Indo-Pacific regarding climate-related matters, Australia and the UK must play a larger role in supporting regional climate and energy initiatives, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Whilst the Biden administration has focused on climate, Australia and Britain must proof their approach towards climate diplomacy if America’s lags under Trump.

William Freer, Council on Geostrategy

Australia has an interest, and the capability, to support security in the Euro-Atlantic – and can do so without watering down its commitment to the Indo-Pacific. Like many in the UK, Australia should not see commitment to the two strategic theatres as a choice between either or.

In attempting to maintain the free and open world which has enabled decades of peaceful prosperity, countries that lack the sheer power of the US must not shy away from the global aspects of this burden, even if there is a strong case for regional specialisation. 

Australia could make two significant contributions beyond their traditional area of operations which would help strengthen the already close partnership with the UK.

One would be to provide more support for Ukraine; seeing an authoritarian state fail in its imperial ambitions is something Australia wants Beijing to see. Already some much appreciated aid has been sent, including almost 200 protected mobility/armoured combat vehicles and they have just joined the drone coalition. But more can be done. Examples include: the fleet of 59 M1A1 Abrams tanks which are being replaced; the rest of Australia’s M113 fleet (due to be replaced soon); and the fleet of 38 NH90 helicopters in the process of being disposed of (although this could cost some money to halt/reverse). 

In addition to this, the presence of an Australian warship to help escort shipping in the Red Sea would be a welcome boost (free movement across the seas is vital to Australian security), and would also be a good opportunity for the Australian Navy to build up combat experience.

Australia is right to focus on its home region, which contains its primary threat, but this does not mean there is not also more which can be done further afield.

Jennifer Parker, Australian Defence Force Academy at the University of New South Wales (Canberra)

Despite speculation on a potential Trump 2.0 approach to AUKUS and alliances more broadly, Trump and those close to him are yet to declare their hand when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. What we do know from Trump’s first term is that his policy approach can be erratic and unpredictable; this may have significant consequences in the maritime domain.

Australia and the UK will need to be in lockstep in assuring a potential second Trump administration of the merits of continuing US support to AUKUS. Beyond shoring up the trilateral capability pact, the two partners may also need to play a role in tempering potential American responses to the PRC’s maritime aggression. Since Trump’s first term, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of incidents between American and Chinese ships and aircraft. There is justifiable concern that one of these incidents could result in an accident which, if not managed with restraint and communication, could lead to conflict. Australia and the UK may well need to be the balancing force which encourages US restraint, whilst simultaneously condemning Chinese aggression.

The risks associated with escalation in the maritime domain, and the AUKUS capability pact developed to underpin stability in that very space, will require close alignment and coordination between Australia and the UK in a potential Trump re-run.

Gray Sergeant, Council on Geostrategy

Despite the isolationist turn taken by many in today’s Republican Party, neither London nor Canberra should worry about the US withdrawing from the Indo-Pacific if Donald Trump returns to the White House. The way he engages the region through his signature ‘America First’ approach should, however, be of concern.

By pursuing American domestic interests aggressively Washington risks undermining its own efforts to compete with the PRC and establish a free and open order. Economic protectionism and climate change scepticism will likely alienate many countries in the region. Moreover, a lack of US leadership on these issues risks creating opportunities for Beijing to enhance its influence and prestige.

Furthermore, a more transactional, unilateralist approach to foreign policy risks weakening the alliances and partnerships which keep the PRC in check currently. Should a crisis spark in the region between the PRC and America, Washington will no doubt seek support from a broad coalition of countries, including some in Europe who could bring significant economic heft to any conflict.

The UK and Australia should attempt to temper the ‘America First’ instincts of a potential new Trump Administration and underline the value of a multilateralist approach, on a variety of fronts, to challenge growing Chinese assertiveness. Of course, where this fails alternative routes will have to be pursued. Such initiatives would not be doomed to fail. Upon taking office the first time around, Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – yet the trade agreement was renegotiated and now plays a key role in shaping norms in the region.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

It is not clear how isolationist a prospective second Trump presidency will be, particularly in relation to the Indo-Pacific, where, arguably, the first presidency shifted the dial in countering Chinese aggrandisement. Trump is most unhappy with allies which do not pull their weight; Australia spends more than 2% of its gross domestic product on defence and has embraced an active defence programme through AUKUS, so it remains unclear if Trump will seek to break away from Australia.

But, should the geopolitical environment worsen and should the alliance between the US and Australia – the two are party to the ANZUS Treaty – come into question, Australia could look to the UK for enhanced protection. This would require a formal military alliance, if only to signal to potential aggressors that Australia would not stand alone if attacked.

But even that would not be enough. Decisive acts must be taken by a nuclear power once it has provided a defence guarantee to a non-nuclear ally. As in the case of NATO with its Enhanced and Tailored forward presences, this could only be achieved through the forward-deployment of British conventional forces to Australian territory.

This leads to some difficult questions. Could a British naval facility be established in Western Australia? Would Australia work with Britain to generate and boost a British military presence on Australian soil? Would UK nuclear forces require augmentation or even repositioning to the Indian Ocean? At the moment these questions seem absurd. But they become easier if the strategic environment continues to change for the worse.

Patrick Triglavcanin, Council on Geostrategy

Australia and the UK worked with a Trump administration before, and they will be able to do so again. This time, however, the geostrategic context the three find themselves in is a lot more uncertain, and the trilateral relationship a lot more intimate. Consequently, Australia and the UK should be more confident, and perhaps bold, in pressuring America should Trump seek a more unilateral approach. 

Consider AUKUS. Republicans aligned with Trump have voiced opposition to the sale of Virginia-class submarines to Australia loudly, a concern grounded in an American submarine industrial base on the wane. But equipping Australia with this capability is a clear example of one of the US’ allies upskilling itself to defend interests and norms aligned closely with America’s, something Trump has been blatant in desiring for some time. And the American’s are selling them the capability, all while Australia commits US$3 billion to the very industrial base they are worried about through AUKUS. Seems like a ‘good deal’? These points should be articulated confidently.

Or consider diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific. Other authors here have rightly pointed out that America will likely remain committed to the region, but have sometimes failed to interact with some of what the British now call ‘middle ground’ powers, namely those with which good relations are rising in importance as the temperature rises between the PRC and US. The current Labor government in Australia has made good on its promises to listen to the region more closely and the UK has also tempered its rhetoric around ‘Global Britain’ and shown willingness to meet nations eye-to-eye through valued regional institutions such as ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum. This approach has proved broadly successful for the UK and Australia; lessons could and should be communicated to Washington.

Joanne Wallis, University of Adelaide

A second Trump presidency is unlikely to be as disruptive to Australia and the UK’s foreign and strategic interests in the Pacific Islands as it is in other regions. 

The first Trump administration initiated a substantive increase in US attention to the Pacific Islands, primarily in the context of rising competition with the PRC – creating, for the first time, a dedicated White House capability focused on the region. As that competition has not diminished, the UK and Australia’s main priority during a second Trump term would be to manage the US’s interest and behaviour in the region. That will include ensuring the US follows through on the spending commitments made under the Biden administration (which have already been thrown into doubt by an intransigent Congress) and managing the fallout of likely American backsliding on climate action, which is critical to the security and prosperity of the Pacific Islands region. 

As the US is often described as acting like a ‘bull in a china shop’ in the Pacific Islands, Australia and the UK should also cooperate to ensure that the Americans listen to Pacific Island countries and work with, rather than around, regional institutions such as the Pacific Islands Forum.

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