Donald Trump, Australia and U.S. tariffs: 'Ironclad' exemptions for security

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'Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull fell into a trance, echoing each behavioural sign and cue from Trump as to how the Australian market would fare.'

~ Dr Binoy Kampmark

EVERYTHING about this U.S. Presidency can be measured by its transactional value. 

Ideology remains a notable absentee. Pragmatism is supposedly sovereign. 

One day, North Korea is threatened with nuclear-inflicted extinction. The next, President Donald Trump happily considers talks with the leader of that very country. Sanctions and the policy of maximum pressure, he chuckles, have worked.

During the course of the week, Trump kept the U.S. populace enthralled by his focus on steel and aluminium tariffs. A 25 per cent tariff on steel imports and a ten per cent rate on aluminium would be imposed.

Trump said:

“If you don’t want to pay tax, bring your plant to the USA.” 

Having set these targets from the summit, the U.S. President left room for jockeying and suggestions. Canada and Mexico would, for instance, be excluded — initially. He promised “great flexibility and cooperation to those who are really friends of ours.” 

Australia, for instance, could be spared:

“We will be making a decision as to who they are — we have a very close relationship with Australia.” 

Australia, for Trump, was “a great country, a long-term partner” of the United States. In due course, “we will be doing something with them”.

The Australian angle on this has been richly subservient. Baffled to be a potential target in the first salvos of a global trade skirmish on steel and aluminium, Australian politicians and representatives went into a ceremonial, kowtow mode.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull fell into a trance, echoing each behavioural sign and cue from Trump as to how the Australian market would fare. Trump “expressly acknowledged the points we have made about the important relationship with Australia, the very strong friendship and of course the fact America has a surplus in its trade with Australia,” said Turnbull. 

No channel was left unused in attempting to convince the White House that Australia deserved the tariff exemption. Showing how Trumpism is as much personal as it is volatile, figures such as Australian ex-golfer, Greg Norman, were deployed as wooing agents, persuasive emissaries. 'Mr Norman,' went the Sydney Morning Herald, 'is a good friend of Mr Trump’s, bonding through a mutual passion for golf.' 

The paper also noted the level of personalised absurdity the U.S.-Australian relationship reached on Trump winning the keys to the White House: 

'When Mr Trump won the Presidency, Australian Ambassador to Washington Joe Hockey called Mr Norman on behalf of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to find out Mr Trump’s mobile phone number.'  

As a product of golf diplomacy, Norman explained that, while he normally did not part with the “cell phone numbers of people in my database”, building a telephonic bridge between the Australian PM and the new President of the United States was a worthy cause.

Norman’s name found itself along with other Australian business figures in a letter of petition to Trump. This was meant to be the power of persuasion. In truth, it spoke to the power of acceptable submission, a prostrate plea: treat us better than the others — we are not like them.

The contents of the letter should cause twinges of discomfort to any Australian citizen concerned that their sovereignty had somehow been outsourced, if not totally surrendered. The great land down under should not – went the petitioners – be the target of U.S. tariffs largely because Washington was profiting more than Canberra from trade agreements. 

While the U.S. is running deep trade deficits with China, Japan and the European Union, the roles are reversed for Australia.

The petition stated:

'We respectfully request that your economic team consider the historic trade surpluses, our $1.29 trillion two-way trade between the United States and Australia, and our critical defence relationship before taking any action that might have a demonstrable impact on the mutually beneficial American-Australian bilateral relationship.'

The skewed nature of the trading accounts between Australia and the United States, instead of being a source of concern, has emboldened Canberra’s free trade ideologues. If it is unequal, it works. The Australia - U.S. Free Trade Agreement, negotiated between seasoned U.S. trade representatives and Australian novices, had its intended effects for Washington. It has become a caricatured distortion of trade, precisely the sort of agreement in need of a good scraping, if not scrapping.  But that would simply be too Trumpist. 

Then comes the link between trade and security, the draining relationship — essentially, between favourable economics and blood bounties.  Do not treat a protectorate unfairly, came the message from Turnbull and the business petitioners. Australians have been marching to war with the United States since the country became a misguided imperium. Give us our dues and spare us for loyalty’s sake.

Trump, putting away his provocative stick, duly dangled his less than appealing carrots. Exemptions were promised to Australian steel and aluminium exporters, if, indeed, this will be the final shape of any agreement. On Saturday, Trump tweeted how he had conversed with Turnbull over his commitment “to having a very fair and reciprocal military and trade relationship.” 

This, however, was only the tantalising prelude. It became clear that something had been offered in return, whether payable immediately or at some future date. 

Stressed Trump,

'Working very quickly on a security agreement so we don’t have to impose steel and aluminium tariffs on our ally, the great nation of Australia!'

Turnbull subsequently sported the enthusiasm of someone who had just been thoroughly goosed.

“I was very pleased the President was able to confirm he would not have to impose tariffs on Australian steel and aluminium.”  One had to be “relentless in fighting for Australian jobs and Australian exports and that’s what I’ve done.”

Such relentlessness is questionable. Australia is already knee – no, body deep – in the U.S. imperial structure, supplying intelligence, conducting quasi-policing missions for Washington, and integrated into the U.S. military machine. Any new “security arrangement” may simply be the lazy wording of a tweeting President, but it illuminates the glass darkly about how reciprocal Australia’s relationship with the U.S. really is — that of a retainer in search of a powerful patron.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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