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Caught between Trump and China, one of the US's closest allies is starting to have second thoughts

Australia Sydney rugby Donald Trump mask Australia Sydney rugby Donald Trump mask
A fan in a Donald Trump face mask at the 2017 HSBC Sydney Sevens at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, February 4, 2017.
James D. Morgan/Getty Images AsiaPac
  • Trump administration policies at home and abroad have strained relations with countries all over the world.
  • Those strains have been felt acutely in Australia, a country already wary of Trump, which is now increasingly at odds with both the US and China.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The Trump administration's confrontational approach at home and abroad have tarnished the US's standing with one of its most important allies: Australia.

President Donald Trump's poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic and hardline response to widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality have further dismayed Australians who were already wary of Trump's leadership and done so at a time when Canberra is struggling to deal with China.

Those domestic and foreign tensions were joined in Lafayette Park, in front of the White House, on June 1, when law enforcement forcefully dispersed a crowd of protesters, allowing Trump to take part in a photo op at a nearby church.

White House protest Australia
An officer strikes members of an Australian news crew at a protest outside the White House, June 1, 2020.
7NEWS Australia/YouTube

Caught in that crowd was a team of Australian journalists, whose beating by US police and drew an official complaint.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围app"It's really a jarring scene for a lot of Australians who have a cultural affinity with the US. I think that seemed like a very profoundly sad moment to watch," Ryan Heath, an Australian journalist who works in the US, said of the incident on a June 3 episode of the podcast.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围app"I think that a lot of people either looked up to the US in a moral sense or looked to the US for protection, and I think a lot of people watching the scenes will now question whether the US can provide that leadership," Heath said.

'Australia is disgusted with us'

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President Donald Trump, Australian businessman Anthony Pratt, and Australian Prime Minister Scott open a plant owned by Pratt in Ohio, September 22, 2019.
Alex Ellinghausen/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appReservations about Trump are not new in Australia. Polling by Australia's United States Study Center found that just 20% of Australians said they'd prefer Trump win a second term and that Australians by a 2-to-1 margin preferred a Democrat beat Trump in the 2020 election.

Polling by Australia's Lowy Institute found just 30% of Australians had some or a lot of confidence that Trump would "do the right thing regarding world affairs." That was up five points from 2019, but Australians also widely rejected Trump's "America First" policies, such as tariffs on imports or withdrawing from international agreements.

While most Australians supported partnering with the US and other democracies to promote security in the region, only 40% agreed that "Australia should act in accordance with our security alliance with the United States if it means supporting military action in the Middle East, for example, against Iran," down eight points from 2013.

Demonstrators observe a minute's silence in Canberra, Australia, on Friday, June 5, 2020 in memory of deaths in custody including George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Thousands gathered in Australia's capital to remind Australians that the racial inequality underscored by Floyd's death was not unique to the United States. (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
Demonstrators in Canberra, Australia, at one of many protests around the world in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US, June 5, 2020.
Associated Press

2020欧洲杯足彩外围app"The US-Australia alliance is the most strained it's been in my lifetime, maybe ever," Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said in an email days after the events in Lafayette Park.

"When I worked in the Pentagon [during the Obama administration] we generally thought of Australia as our closest ally in the world, and there was stiff competition for that title at the time," Jackson added. "But Australia is disgusted with us, and its policymakers increasingly see us as unreliable."

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's prime minister from 2015 to 2018, recently told Business Insider that the US has less influence around the world now than it did prior to Trump's presidency, "in large part because under his presidency, the US has sought to have less influence."

Caught between the US and China

Donald Trump Scott Morrison Australia
Trump and Morrison toast at a state dinner at the White House, September 20, 2019.
Alex Ellinghausen/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appThe response to the coronavirus pandemic, for which Australians have given US and Chinese leaders poor marks, has contributed to a sense in Australia that it is caught between the two powers.

Australia's call in late April for an independent review into the origins of the pandemic drew backlash from Beijing, which accused Canberra of following Washington's lead.

One Chinese state-media outlet Australia "a giant kangaroo that serves as a dog to the US." Beijing has also on Australian goods and purportedly conducted a months-long cyberattack against Australia's government and businesses.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appCanberra has resisted efforts to push an unsubstantiated claim, touted by the US, that the coronavirus was developed in a Chinese lab. A dossier supposedly compiled by Western governments and cited by Australian media as supporting that claim in Canberra that the US was promoting inaccurate information.

The mostly deserted city centre is seen following the implementation of stricter social-distancing and self-isolation rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, April 16, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
The mostly deserted center of Sydney after the implementation of stricter social-distancing and self-isolation rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus, April 16, 2020.
Reuters

China's effort to "recast Australia's independent call for a COVID-19 inquiry as 'doing Washington's bidding' is designed to discredit Canberra and put the government in a difficult diplomatic position," Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defense at the United States Studies Center, said in an email at the end of May.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围app"At the same time, Australia has not been well served by the Trump administration's hyper-confrontational stance towards China on COVID-19," including its unproven theories about pandemic's origins, Townshend added.

"Washington must protect the integrity of the shared information landscape — and allow Canberra's independent voice to ring through" if Australia is to resist Beijing's efforts to paint it as a US lackey, Townshend said.

Fraying 'mateship'

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President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard greet US Marines and Australian troops at the RAAF Base in Darwin, November 17, 2011.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

Despite recent strains in the relationship, the US and Australian continue to work closely together, particularly on security matters.

Australia's location is valuable to the US, which operates a satellite surveillance base at Pine Gap in Central Australia and regularly deploys2020欧洲杯足彩外围app Marines to Darwin in north-central Australia. An Australian navy ship also recently for exercises in the increasingly tense South China Sea.

"Cultural similarities and robust bilateral arrangements" also undergird the "unique bilateral partnership" that Australia as "mateship."

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appBut fraying bilateral relations would have consequences for the US's strategic position in the region.

"Losing Australian support would hobble America's ability to compete with China outside of Northeast Asia," Jackson said, adding that alienating Australia would almost certainly mean losing the goodwill of other Asian allies and partners.

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US Ambassador Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. tours an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft at RAAF Base, Darwin, Australia, May 9, 2019.
US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Kaleb Martin

"I can't think of a scenario where the US-Australia alliance fractures but the US ties with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and New Zealand remain in good stead," Jackson said. "At that point, the United States will either have no meaningful strategic position in the Pacific outside Hawaii and Guam, or the United States itself will be a menace to the region."

Rising tensions between the US and China, increasingly characterized as a cold war, have stoked debate within Australia about its positioning between the US, a major ally, and China, its largest trading partner.

"The problem for us here in Australia is the government needs to make up its mind," said Alexey Muraviev, a professor focused on security studies at Curtin University in Perth.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围app"Part of the frustration that I think some experts in Australian security and defense communities have is the government is trying to sit on two chairs." Muraviev said in an interview. "One chair is called our security and strategic concerns about China as a strategic counterweight to the United States, and the other chair is called China is our number one trading partner, and there are too many eggs in that basket."

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World leaders, including Trump and Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, at the 31st Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila, November 13, 2017.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The US and Australia have overlapping strategic objectives in the region, but their interests and threat perceptions regarding China "are by no means symmetrical," Townshend said. A more robust China policy, focused on boosting national sovereignty and resilience, is a common goal and one that "will drive a high degree cooperation."

But Canberra and Washington have "very different capabilities, policy priorities, and political tolerance for accepting costs and risks in the China relationship," Townshend added. "Australia, as a middle power, is far more concerned about preserving the overall health of a multilateral regional order than the current White House appears to be."

While many so-called middle powers have hedged between the US and China, seeking to work with both and spurn neither, Australia's deep ties to the US and economic reliance on China put it in a precarious position.

"They've hedged in the sense that they've placed two very different bets, but they've bet the farm on both of them. And it's not possible for them both to work out well in this environment," Jackson said on .

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