Viewed through the lens of a traditional relationship between close allies, all might have seemed well as US Vice-President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sprinkled emollient words on a media contingent gathered on the lawns of Sydney’s Admiralty House.
Ferries traversed Sydney Harbour in the background, yachts tacked back and forth, and the sun shone. But that pastoral scene hardly shielded a troubled world beyond, and one that is weighing on the US alliance.
In the age of Donald Trump and “Trumpism” – defined by its unpredictability – Pence’s mission was to reassure an alliance partner the US remained committed to an Asia-Pacific presence, and America’s relationship with Australia in particular. Pence put it this way:
I trust that my visit here today on my very first trip the Asia-Pacific as vice-president of the United States and the president’s plans to travel to this region this fall are a strong sign of our enduring commitment to the historic alliance between the people of the United States of America and the people of Australia.
Importantly, from Turnbull’s perspective, Pence put his imprimatur on a refugee deal that would see asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island resettled in the US subject to severe vetting.
The plain vanilla former Indiana governor and long-term congressman – polar opposite of the flamboyant Trump – did a reasonable job in his efforts to calm concerns that might be held about a new administration’s commitment to the region.
His message was similar to those delivered on previous stops in Japan and South Korea. America would stay the course, and it would stand with its allies against threats to regional security. If anything, it would act more assertively in seeking to preserve Asia-Pacific peace and stability.
Pence made no reference to the previous administration’s “pivot” to Asia, or its commitment to broaden engagement in the region via diplomatic means. If there is a defining characteristic of the new White House in its early months, it is that the threatened projection of American power is back more overtly as a diplomatic tool.
Had former vice-president Joe Biden been standing on the Admiralty House lawns, his words of reassurance to an Asia-Pacific ally would not have been much different. But the context has shifted significantly – and so, too, has the rhetoric.
North Korea’s belligerence, its provocations, its prosecution of a potentially deadly game of bluff, its quirkiness, its threats to launch ballistic missiles against the west coast of the US and as far afield as Australia, all are hardly new. But what has changed are the players: or to put it more bluntly, one player in counterpoint to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump’s arrival in the White House has added a new layer of unpredictability to a set of circumstances North Korea’s neighbours have lived with for many years – that country’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.
The world might regard Kim as a cartoonish figure. But the reality is that he presides over a country whose firepower could leave swathes of the Korean peninsula in ruins.
More than half-a-century after the end of the Korean war, the Korean peninsula remains on a hair trigger. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is in split-second range of the north’s artillery and missile batteries.
If a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens provided the first significant foreign policy challenge for a new administration, North Korea’s bombast represents a test of a different order.
No responsible public official can afford to ignore such threats, whatever judgements might be made about that country’s endless displays of brinkmanship.
Speaking of brinkmanship, America’s allies would be foolish not to recalibrate their own expectations of American behaviour under a Trump administration. In this regard Australia is – or should be – no exception.
While Turnbull might have emphasised his fealty to the alliance, the reality is that the Asia-Pacific – or as Australian officials emphasise these days, the Indo-Pacific (to include India and the Indian Ocean that laps at our shores) – has to accept that regional security increasingly will depend on Chinese engagement, whether we like it or not.
Both Turnbull and Pence made it clear they were looking to Beijing to help lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula and bring North Korea to heel. China has proved reluctant to assert its influence over its neighbour, but indications now are the Chinese accept that it is in their interests to calm the situation.
China has taken several significant steps to put Pyongyang on notice, including turning back coal shipments.
If Chinese and US pressure proves able to calm current tensions – and even bring about a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – this may come to be regarded as an historic moment in regional security. It may also be a possible forerunner to the development of more formalised regional security arrangements.
American media reported that Pence’s visit to Australia and other regional countries was prompted partly by concerns in Washington that relations needed to be smoothed to combat reservations about the Trump administration’s commitment to the region.
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, his criticisms of China so-called “currency manipulation”, his threats to launch a trade war with China, his description of efforts to combat global warming as a “Chinese hoax”, and other intemperate statements have rattled traditional allies.
If the American embassy in Canberra had been paying attention to local media it would have reported back to Washington that there is a groundswell of opinion in Australia that would like to see the country reposition itself between its traditional ally and its most important economic partner.
Influential voices, including those of former foreign minister Gareth Evans, have been calling for less “reflexive” support for US policies. Opinion polls indicate the majority of Australians have a poor regard for Trump.
Whatever Pence and Turnbull may have said on that sun-filled day on the shores of Sydney Harbour, the world is changing fast and with it the context within which Australia interacts with its security guarantor. And perhaps just as importantly, with its principal economic partner.