Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison heads to Washington this month for a state visit. The trip will highlight his warm ties with President Donald J. Trump and bring attention to an increasingly important alliance as Washington and Beijing compete for influence in the Indo-Pacific.
What’s on the agenda?
Set to take place September 20, the state dinner will be the second Trump has hosted since taking office. It will be Morrison’s second meeting with Trump since his Liberal-National coalition’s surprise electoral victory in May. Morrison and Trump met for a working dinner during the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in June, where Trump touted the countries’ trade partnership and Morrison urged a resolution to the U.S.-China trade dispute.
The leaders are expected to discuss trade frictions and other challenges posed by China, such as intellectual property issues and Chinese influence operations in other countries. Iran might come up because Australia has joined U.S.-led efforts to protect ships in the Strait of Hormuz.
Morrison and Trump share views on some issues. Both plan on skipping the UN Climate Summit on September 23 in New York. While Morrison remains committed to the Paris Agreement on climate change, he has said he doesn’t plan on boosting targets. (Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris accord in 2017.) They have both faced criticism for hard-line policies on asylum seekers, and Trump praised a controversial ad campaign by the Morrison government to deter refugees.
What does the U.S.-Australia alliance look like today?
At the G20 summit, Trump described the alliance as “one of our oldest and one of our best.” Australian forces have participated alongside U.S. troops in every war the United States has entered since World War I, and the two countries have been bound by a mutual defense agreement—the Australia, New Zealand, and U.S. Security (ANZUS) Treaty—since 1951. Both are members of the Five Eyes partnership, a decades-old intelligence-sharing alliance that also includes Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Additionally, Australian and U.S. armed forces come together biennially for military exercises known as Talisman Saber.
President Barack Obama boosted the United States’ focus on Australia and other partners in the region with what he initially called the “pivot” toward Asia, which many analysts understood to be a response to China’s growing presence. The Trump administration has similarly tried to strengthen its relationships in Asia through its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Around 2,500 U.S. Marines are now based in Darwin, Australia, a target set by Obama in 2011.
Concerns about China have likewise mounted in Canberra, with recent administrations taking a tougher line toward Beijing. Under former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Australia passed several laws aimed at preventing foreign interference, which were seen by experts as directed at China. Morrison’s government has paved the way for a larger U.S. military presence in Australia as China expands its reach in the Indo-Pacific. But overall, Morrison has taken a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing than his predecessor.
Additionally, in August 2018, Australia banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from building 5G networks in the country, in step with a U.S. push for its allies to blacklist the company.
Are there points of contention?
Trade policy is a potential area of divergence. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, so Canberra doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Morrison has criticized the U.S.-China trade dispute, saying it was “in no one’s interest in the Indo-Pacific to see an inevitably more competitive U.S.-China relationship become adversarial.” But recently, he has avoided personally blaming Trump for the trade war.
Australia also seems reluctant to follow the United States’ lead on challenging Chinese claims in the South China Sea through its own freedom-of-navigation operations, likely fearing retaliation from Beijing.
Despite the warming relationship between Morrison and Trump, experts say that, in the absence of “a more strategic approach,” the alliance faces a growing risk of discord.