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Will China Benefit From Trump’s Testy Call With Australia’s Prime Minister?

An icier relationship between the United States and Australia could push the land down under closer to its biggest trading partner.

By Kate Wheeling


President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Oval Office of the White House on January 28th. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The United States and Australia are typically quite chummy, but a contentious phone call between the nations’ leaders may have put a strain on one of our country’s strongest alliances.

The Saturday conversationbetween President Donald Trump and the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ended early, after Trump criticized a refugee agreement between the two nations, crowed about his electoral college win, and told Turnbull that, of all the world leaders he had spoken with that day, “this was the worst call by far,” the Washington Postreported.

The talk grewespecially tense over a deal inked by the Obama administration to take in 1,250 refugees from a detention center in Australia. Trump expressed disdain for the deal, with the discussion coming a day afterhe signed an executive order on immigration temporarily banning the admittance of refugees. The call ended 35 minutes earlier than planned, and the leaders released conflicting accounts of their exchange. On Monday, the Turnbull said Trump had agreed to honor the refugee agreement. But on Wednesday, Trump announced on his favorite social media platform that he was still studying the “dumb deal.”

Trump’s volatile temperament and the rift it appears to have stirred between the U.S. and Australia could drive our ally closer to China — the country that Trump has attacked more than any other as a threat to the U.S. “Trump is needlessly damaging the deep trust that binds one of America’s closest alliances. China and those wishing to weaken the strongest alliance in the Pacific will see opportunity in this moment,” Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the New York Times.

As Mark Thirwell reported in Pacific Standard in 2013, one of the only things standing in the way of a warmer relationship between China and Australia was the latter’s close ties to the U.S. “Since Washington and Beijing are increasingly viewed as strategic rivals, Australian policymakers face a difficult trade-off,” Thirwell wrote. “Do they cuddle up to their most important customer and risk alienating their security partner, or chance diminishing their economic welfare by sticking with their traditional ally?”

Australia’s proximity to booming Asian markets may have helped protect it from the global financial crisis that crippled much of the Western world, and China is the country’s biggest trading partner. As Thirwell wrote:

In 2011, China accounted for almost one-quarter of all Australian goods trade. In the same year, polling by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney found that about 75 percent of those asked agreed that China’s growth had been good for Australia. A 2012 poll found that the Australian public is even inclined to give China rather more credit than Australia’s own policies for weathering the global financial crisis.

Phone calls between U.S. and Australian leaders have been contentious before, but some experts worry about the implications of Trump and Turnbull getting off to such a bad start. As James Curran, a history professor at the University of Sydney told the Sydney Morning Herald: “If you have this sort of tension this early in the life of the administration over relatively small beer, what will happen in the event of a major crisis?”