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A Reset, of Sorts, for the United States and Australia

A Reset, of Sorts, for the United States and Australia


No issue has moved as quickly to the top of both countries’ priority lists.

China is the linchpin for dealing with North Korea; its Belt and Road initiative aims to reshape infrastructure in much of the world; and in both Australia and the United States, concerns about China’s efforts to infiltrate and manipulate democratic institutions, including universities, have intensified.

Officials from both countries are already talking about how to meet the challenge.

Australia’s new espionage bill, for example, was drafted with input from American security agencies.

China is expected to become even more of a focal point now that Mr. Trump has named the next American ambassador to Australia: Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of the United States Pacific Command and a well-known critic of China’s expansion efforts in the South China Sea.

“He’s the first serious, heavy-hitting U.S. ambassadorial appointment here since Marshall Green came in 1973,” said James Curran, a history professor at the University of Sydney. “That’s a sign of how seriously Washington regards Australia and its broader Asia strategy.”

But how dangerous is China, really?

That’s the question Australia, the United States and much of the world are trying to figure out. And it’s not at all clear that Mr. Turnbull and Mr. Trump agree on the answer.

“Where we diverge is on how severe the threat is and how comprehensive our response needs to be,” said Ashley Townshend, a foreign policy expert at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

In Australia’s rankings of threats to its interests, terrorism still lands higher than China. In the United States, the latest national security plan puts terrorism below countering the Chinese and Russian militaries.

“The China hawks have the upper hand in Washington at the moment,” Professor Curran said.

What both Canberra and Washington are wondering is: Will Australia, which counts China as its largest trading partner, fall in line?

Photo



Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan with Mr. Trump and Mr. Turnbull at a regional summit meeting in Manila in November. Australia and Japan would like Mr. Trump to reconsider his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

Credit
Doug Mills/The New York Times

2. Trade and Investment

When Mr. Turnbull last met with Mr. Trump, in May in New York, the visit included a big economic boost to the Trump agenda: An Australian businessman, Anthony Pratt, pledged to invest $2 billion in America, primarily in Midwestern manufacturing.

Mr. Trump was thrilled enough to give Mr. Pratt a standing ovation.

It’s not clear if Mr. Turnbull has anything quite as juicy in tow this time, but he is bringing a large business delegation with him and will meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Experts say the economic focus reflects reality — the U.S.-Australia investment relationship is worth more than $1 trillion — and a recognition of, well, personal politics.

“Trump is motivated by obvious transactional wins,” said Mr. Townshend at the United States Studies Center.

At the same time, he added, because Mr. Trump is unpopular in Australia, “it plays well for the prime minister to focus on the positive economic and trade aspects of the bilateral relationship, not just on the military.”

But will Trump reconsider his ‘go it alone’ approach?

The big ask, from Australia, Japan and other American allies in the region, involves the trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Mr. Trump pulled out of the multinational agreement soon after taking office, dismissing it as a bad deal for Americans, but countries in the region have been moving on anyway and are close to final approval.

Australia has been arguing for the United States to rejoin, and some experts expect Mr. Turnbull to ask Mr. Trump, flat-out: What would it take? What concessions would get the United States back on board?

Not many experts are expecting an answer.

Separate from the Pacific trade deal, Australia, the United States, India and Japan are in the very early phases of talking about a joint regional infrastructure scheme that could become an alternative to China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative.

One big question that will probably be asked on this trip: Would Mr. Trump embrace a building spree to compete with China — or would he see it as not sufficiently “America First”?

Photo



Refugees on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the site of one of Australia’s offshore detention centers, in November. More than 200 refugees held by the Australian authorities have gone to the United States under an agreement that Mr. Trump criticized.

Credit
Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

3. Immigration for the Few

The issue that set off Mr. Trump in that first phone call — a deal brokered by President Barack Obama to bring refugees from Australia’s offshore detention camps to the United States, in exchange for asylum seekers from Central America who would move to Australia — is on its way to being resolved.

More than 200 refugees held by the Australian authorities have since gone to the United States after repeated vetting, without controversy. Central Americans have been appearing in Australia as well, without much fanfare.

But what if it becomes the many?

The original deal promised that the United States would consider taking up to 1,200 refugees from Australian detention centers.

Far fewer than that have actually gone, leading to frustration in the detention camps and prompting some human rights advocates to speculate that American and Australian officials are trying to keep the migration flow to a trickle, to avoid a backlash from Mr. Trump.

It’s all yet another sign of how, a year after that phone call, the relationship has evolved to account for his volatility.

“Australia has learned to deal with Trump one step at a time,” Professor Curran said. “It’s the only way to take a president who remains a work in progress on foreign policy, and who continues to be so erratic and impulsive.”

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