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10 November 2016

The election of Donald Trump raises some big questions for Australia about its alliance with the US, as well as its future relationship with China, Jane Golley writes.

Australia faces a new world today, and our leaders have some extremely important decisions to make about what our place in this new world will be. Trump’s victory is a signal of everything that is wrong with America, with its democracy, its economy, its attitude to the rest of the world’s people, and its lack of respect for the planet itself. Australia does not have to follow suit.

Last night on the ABC’s 7.30, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stressed that the “alliance between Australia and the United States is set in the enduring national interests of both countries, it’s in our mutual interest to stand together”.

Yet surely now is the time to seriously and openly question the benefits of this alliance, and to adapt to the new reality of the world in which we live.

China, and Australia’s relationship with it, is central to this reality. China’s leaders are far from perfect, but they offer (at least) two key policy elements that are diametrically opposed to Trump’s: their firm commitment to an open global economy, and their equally firm commitment to tackling catastrophic climate change. If Australia chooses to side with America on these issues, in the name of ‘enduring national interests’, I firmly believe that we will find ourselves on the losing side of history.

Prior to his victory, Trump claimed that he would impose a 45 per cent tariff on all Chinese goods imported into the US, in an attempt to save the jobs of the many unskilled, poor (and predominantly white) Americans who have now voted him in. While he is almost certain to backpedal on this promise, the fact that the newly-proclaimed President of the world’s largest economy could ever have made such a claim should not be forgotten.

On climate change, Trump’s pre-election claims were even more frightening than his economic ‘policies’, with his viral tweet asserting that: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.

More on this: Policy Forum Pod: Post-Paris and climate under Trump

Later he said climate change was a “hoax”, and that he would rip up the Paris Agreement, which entered into effect just one week ago, after being ratified by the required 55 countries one month earlier. His victory has already boosted share prices in mining equipment giant Caterpillar and other companies connected to fossil fuels, especially coal. Renewable energy shares, meanwhile, have plummeted.

The contrast with China could not be starker. In addition to ratifying the Paris Agreement in early September (triggering many other countries to follow suit), the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) has confirmed China’s commitment to developing a low-carbon green economy. This has prompted Greenpeace to declare that the Plan is “quite possibly the most important document in the world in setting the pace of acting on climate change”.

Many of China’s 2020 energy targets have already been surpassed, coal consumption in the country may already have peaked, and its recent advances in renewable energy are truly remarkable. According to one scholar, if current trends continue, China “would be the world’s undisputed renewables superpower”.

The consequences for the Australian economy of an all-out trade war between our largest (China) and third largest (America) trading partners – however slim that prospect might be – would be dire. Our enduring interests in a strong national economy lie firmly in an enduring commitment to the open global economy that has benefited so many of us so greatly in decades past.

Likewise, for those ‘believers’ among us – including 97 per cent of the world’s climate scientists – climate change is not a hoax. And the human race has both the responsibility, and the opportunity to do something positive about it. Green growth in an open global economy, or dirty growth in a closed one? It’s that simple.

By choosing to put the American alliance above all others, we will become increasingly excluded from the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region, the economic centre of the new world. China is central to this prosperity, and despite (or perhaps because of) its environmental record in the past, I have no doubt that it will be increasingly underpinned by green, low-carbon growth. The time for a stronger, cooperative relationship with this rising power – subject to the many caveats of dealing with a country so different from our own – is right now.

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Golley, Jane. 2016. "Australia’S Choice - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.