At the time of writing, there is not yet a clear outcome in the US presidential election. So far, Biden appears to be ahead but the race is close in key battleground states.
The pre-election polls were clearly in Joe Biden’s favour. The Economist gave him a 97 per cent chance of winning the electoral college and a 99 per cent chance of winning the popular vote. The FiveThirtyEight website gave him an 89 per cent chance in the electoral college and a similar chance on the popular vote.
But no matter who the winner is, experts and pundits seem to agree that US strategy in Asia, and by extension Washington’s relationship with Canberra, are unlikely to change significantly.
Writing in the ASPI Strategist, Michael Shoebridge argues that Australia’s impact on global discussions - such as 5G providers and international responses to the pandemic – does not depend on US leadership.
“Superpowers can obviously walk and chew gum, but when there’s so much domestic gum to chew, ideas and policy directions will probably need to be developed by others and marketed to Washington,” Shoebridge wrote. “That’s good news for Australia, because it’s what Australian political leaders have already been doing, with this year’s AUSMIN meeting being a fine example.”
Shoebridge also notes that the two largest issues of our time – climate change and the rise of China – do not depend on who occupies the White House. China has committed to being carbon neutral by 2060, but in reality is still enacting policies that are likely to accelerate climate change. In addition, Beijing will also continue to shift the world order in ways that can’t be reduced to its competition with the US: “Telling ourselves that the China challenge is a problem for the US, and that we all must simply wait to see how we play into it, is a conceptual error that’s also fundamentally disempowering.”
The US Studies Centre over at the University of Sydney largely agrees with this assessment.
“Across the US Studies Centre, there is consensus that no matter who wins the 2020 election, this contest between the US and China will (a) continue to be the most significant driver of US foreign policy for the foreseeable future, (b) be the single most important tension in global affairs, (c) continue to grow in scope, encompassing trade and investment, research and development and elements of civil society,” Professor Simon Jackman writes.
Sam Roggeveen of the Lowy Institute, originally writing in the AFR, is blunt. “The result of the upcoming US presidential election is inconsequential for Australia,” he wrote. “It does not matter who wins.”
Despite the gulf between the personalities of Biden and Trump, Roggeveen argues that the US is no longer capable of summoning the effort to contain China.
“The problem is that whoever wins this US election will inherit a political system and a nation that have no appetite for a contest on the scale that would be required to contain China’s rise,” Roggeveen wrote. “Australia faces a future in which maintaining our security will increasingly be a job for us alone.”
So to sum up: no matter how the election pans out in the time between me writing this article and you reading it, the strategic outlook for Defence (and therefore defence industry) will remain largely unchanged.
Yet the question of what happens if there is no winner – or worse, if the transfer of power is not peaceful – is entirely up in the air.