Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Trump, the Pacific, and unintended consequences

On his popular Kiwiblog, the National Party pollster and advisor to John Key David Farrar is vainly trying to convince his audience that Donald Trump should not become president of the United States. Many of Kiwiblog's readers are social conservatives partial to conspiracy theories about ethnic minorities, and Trump's orations against Muslims and Mexicans have delighted them. 
I haven’t seen any of Farrar's readers discuss how a Trump presidency might affect New Zealand’s traditional role in the Asia and Pacific regions. 
Since World War Two Australia and New Zealand have been sheriff's deputies for the United States in the Pacific. Our navy and army exercise regularly with their American counterparts, despite our anti-nuclear policy, and we formulate and execute interventions in Asian and Pacific nations together. When they face serious issues, Kiwi diplomats in Pacific nations where America lacks representation - nations like Tonga and the Solomon Islands - follow policies developed with Canberra and Washington. The Australian and New Zealand military and police interventions in nations like Timor-Leste, Tonga,  and the Solomons were all made in line with American policy, and with the moral support of America. 
In recent years the Anzac nations and America have been trying to stymie the spread of Chinese influence through the Pacific. The Obama administration has tipped more money into the region, and consolidated its military bases on islands like Guam and Okinawa. Obama has spoken of shifting the focus of American foreign policy from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific. The recent visit of Obama's deputy Joe Biden to New Zealand was a reminder of the cosy relationship between this country and the United States. Biden used his visit to warn China that the United States remained a 'Pacific power', and was not about to vacate the region. 
Trump may have fluid or incoherent opinions on many other subjects, but his views on foreign policy have been clear and consistent for decades. He dislikes the many treaties that make America responsible for the defence of smaller and weaker nations, and he admires the size and power of China and Russia. On the campaign trail this year Trump has called the NATO alliance a drain on American resources, and dismissed America's military alliances with Japan and South Korea for the same reason. Trump has made his admiration for Vladimir Putin clear, and has said that he is keen to reach a better understanding with China's leaders. 
It would not be at all surprising if president Trump junked the Obama-Clinton policy of confronting China in the Asia and Pacific regions. He would be especially likely to turn away from the strategically unimportant South Pacific, and let China complete its economic colonisation of nations like Tonga and Fiji. If Trump thinks American military bases in Europe and on the Korean peninsula are unnecessary, then he is unlikely to have much enthusiasm for maintaining facilities in places like New Zealand or the Marshall Islands or American Samoa. 
If Trump turned his back on the Pacific then the New Zealand and Australian governments would face a choice. They would either have to maintain a policy of confronting China on their own, which would be very difficult, or else reach some sort of rapprochement of their own with the Chinese. Either way, they could not count on the guidance and materiel of their American cousins.
They might object to numerous other aspects of a Trump presidency, but few people on the New Zealand left would be too upset by an American withdrawal from the Pacific. It is New Zealand's political and defence establishments that would have a headache. David Farrar's alarm at Trump's rise is understandable. 

One of the stranger unintended consequences of a Trump presidency might be the emergence, for the first time in one hundred and thirty years, of an independent New Zealand foreign policy. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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