Despite failed impeachment proceedings, US President Donald Trump has used his State of the Union address to praise the ongoing modernisation of the US military amid great power competition, while also signalling that he intends to keep his election promise to reduce the overseas presence of US troops.
He is typically bombastic, notoriously mercurial in his international dealings, but US President Donald Trump's latest State of the Union address has been met with varying responses from both sides of politics in the US – the 'rebuilding' of the US military figured strongly in the President's address.
President Trump sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020.
While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry.
Ranking Republican lawmaker on the House appropriations defense subcommittee Ken Calvert welcomed the US$20 billion increase over the preceding 2019 budget, explaining: "The bill increases funding for operations and maintenance and procurement for the next generation of equipment to ensure our men and women in uniform always have the tactical advantage.”
This was reinforced by Senate appropriations committee chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama, who stated the deal would see "robust investment in rebuilding our military and secures significant funds for the President’s border wall system".
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act will see a number of major acquisition, organisational restructures and modernisation programs to support America’s shift away from decades of conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East, with a US$15 billion increase in the procurement budget, bringing the Pentagon’s total acquisition budget to US$146 billion.
This long-term focus on rebuilding, modernising and expanding the capacity of the US military in the face of growing great power rivalry with China and, to a lesser-extent, Russia is a key focus for the President, with the concept of 'American leadership' the culmination of these efforts:
"As we restore American leadership throughout the world, we are once again standing up for freedom in our hemisphere," President Trump said.
China in the cross hairs
The President's well publicised and often criticised trade war and 'confrontation' with China was a key focus in the State of the Union address, with the economic competition the first port of call, providing an insight into the President's approach to great power competition.
"I also promised our citizens that I would impose tariffs to confront China’s massive theft of America’s jobs. Our strategy has worked. Days ago, we signed the groundbreaking new agreement with China that will defend our workers, protect our intellectual property, bring billions and billions of dollars into our treasury, and open vast new markets for products made and grown right here in the USA," the President stated.
"For decades, China has taken advantage of the United States. Now we have changed that, but, at the same time, we have perhaps the best relationship we’ve ever had with China, including with President Xi. They respect what we’ve done because, quite frankly, they could never really believe that they were able to get away with what they were doing year after year, decade after decade, without someone in our country stepping up and saying, 'That’s enough'."
This rhetoric paints a drastically different image of the US-China relationship, with flow on challenges and benefits for Australia's own political, economic and strategic policy makers to grapple with as the 2020s continue to unfold.
Reasserting US military preeminence, with some caveats
During the 2016 Presidential election, President Trump strongly advocated for the withdrawal of American personnel from the "costly" wars, particularly in the Middle East, while also seeking to pressure key US-allies, namely NATO to fully meet their financial commitments.
The President reiterated his commitment to bringing American service personnel home from Afghanistan, "We are working to finally end America’s longest war and bring our troops back home."
This echoes the statement made by the President's statement from 2019 where he declared that "great nations do not fight endless wars", reinforcing the commitment, while putting many allies on notice as to the limitations of the US.
While controversial, the President's pressure on NATO has seen the organisation's largest members, namely France and Germany, begin to meet their financial obligations, with the President stating, "We are also getting our allies, finally, to help pay their fair share. I have raised contributions from the other NATO members by more than US$400 billion, and the number of allies meeting their minimum obligations has more than doubled."
President Trump also reinforced the planned increase in expenditure for the US Military, with record levels of military spending: "To safeguard American liberty, we have invested a record-breaking US$2.2 trillion in the United States military. We have purchased the finest planes, missiles, rockets, ships and every other form of military equipment, and it’s all made right here in the USA."
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.
As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.
It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum”– "If you want peace, prepare for war."