Pivot to China: Refugee Policy Strains U.S.-Australia Ties

by Gabrielle Dennis

The aftermath of President Trump’s first act of diplomacy with Australia has raised concerns of weakening U.S influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull discussed foreign policy during a call on Saturday, January 28, that allegedly ended in the Trump unceremoniously hanging up on the foreign leader.[1] The strained phone call was the two leaders’ first joint act of diplomacy, a major talking point being an agreement made during the Obama administration that would transfer 1,250 refugees from Australian detention centers on Manus and Nauru to the United States. In exchange, Australia would accept a number of Central American refugees. Trump strongly protested the deal, stating it would “hurt him politically”[2] and later took to Twitter to suggest that the policy was a “dumb deal” and that it would need further scrutiny.[3]

The timing of the re-examination of this policy was inopportune for President Trump, coming the day after he had signed the Executive Order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq and Iran. Coincidentally, Iraq and Iran are two of the principle countries of origin for refugees on Manus and Nauru.[4] However, Turnbull spoke to a radio show saying, “That he had ‘a clear commitment from the president’ that resettlement plans would proceed.”[5] The U.S Embassy in Australia originally affirmed this response, however, after the President’s tweet, deferred to White House commentary.[6]

The tension of the past week has increased fears that the U.S. is losing influence in Australia, and along with it, the Asia-Pacific region. The Los Angeles Times reports, “Like many countries in the region, Australia depends on the United States for its security but looks to China for its economic well-being, and it does not want to choose definitively between the two as they wage a global contest for power.”[7] Within his first week of office, citing national interests, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that was set to unite 12 countries including Australia, Mexico, Japan, Canada and Peru.[8] The partnership, which did not include China, “Aimed to create a free-trade zone for about 40% of the world’s economy.”[9] Trump characterized the TPP as a “disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country.”[10] Prominent economic strategy advisors to the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, however, suggest, “The new administration’s decision to withdraw from TPP puts these benefits [trade opportunities, protecting free trade and intellectual property] at risk and could leave a dangerous vacuum in the region, undermining US security and prosperity.”[11] After the U.S left the TPP, Australia indicated that they were looking into ways to preserve it, possibly by involving China in place of the U.S. The new alliance, which includes China and 15 other Asia Pacific nations is called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.[12] This partnership fulfills many of the same ideals and functions as the TPP, but swaps geopolitical superpowers. Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations argues, “Trump has single-handedly given away an enormous source of leverage over China.”[13] What impact this shift will have on the U.S. both economically and politically, time will tell, but China and the rest of the Asia Pacific certainly won’t be waiting around to find out.

[1] G. Thrush and M. Innis, “U.S.-Australia Rift is Possible after Trump ends Call with Prime Minister,” The New York Times (February 2, 2017): Accessed on February 5. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/02/us/politics/us-australia-trump-turnbull.html.

[2] J. Perlez, “Trump’s Harsh Talk with Malcolm Turnbull of Australia Strains Another Alliance,” The New York Times (February 2, 2017): Accessed on February 5. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/02/world/australia/donald-trump-malcolm-turnbull-refugees.html.

[3] Perlez, “Trump’s Harsh Talk.”

[4] J. Williams, “Australia says Trump will Honor One-time Deal to Accept Refugees,” The New York Times (2017, January 30, 2017): Accessed on February 6. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/30/world/australia/trump-us-refugee-manus-nauru.html.

[5] Perlez, “Trump’s Harsh Talk.”

[6] Perlez, “Trump’s Harsh Talk.”

[7] Perlez, “Trump’s Harsh Talk.”

[8] “TPP: What is it and Why does it Matter?” BBC News (January 23, 2017): Accessed on February 5. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-32498715.

[9] J. Meyer, “In Asia, China Looks like the Winner after Scuttling of Trans-Pacific Partnership,” Los Angeles Times. (January 24, 2017): Accessed on February 5. http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-trans-pacific-partnership-china-20170124-story.html.

[10] C. Riley, “TPP: Trump’s Decision to Kill Trade Deal Leaves Door Open for China,” (January 23, 2017): Accessed on February 5. http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/23/news/economy/tpp-trump-china/index.html.

[11] J. Huntsman, C. Barshefsky, and E. Greenburg, “Trump must Reassert U.S. Leadership in the Asia Pacific,” (January 26, 2017): Accessed on February 5. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/25/opinions/americas-pacific-century-huntsman-barshefsky-greenberg-opinion/index.html.

[12] Meyer, “In Asia, China.”

[13] Riley, “TPP: Trump’s Decision.”

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