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Donald Trump has done Australia a favour

Could it be that, despite everything, Donald Trump is doing Australia something of a favour? He has jolted the world's confidence in US sanity, shaken the trust of US allies and shattered progress in global market-opening. In other words, he's undercut the fundamental principles and systems that have sustained the America-centric global order since World War II. Yet because of this shock to the system, he is forcing Australia's leadership to think.

Australia's default position for most of the postwar era has been to contract out to Washington most of the thinking on foreign affairs and defence. Australia has automatically relied on the US alliance as the national insurance policy, and sent small contingents to support America's fights in the Middle East as payments to make sure the policy remained current.

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It wasn't that Australia lacked independence. It's that we chose dependency. As former diplomat Allan Gyngell​ puts it in an essay in the new journal Australian Foreign Affairs: "No one has forced us to fight particular wars or pursue particular goals. It was all our own doing.

"It's not independence that Australian foreign policy needs, but substance, subtlety and creativity."

Donald Trump, it seems, has shocked Canberra out of this long torpor. Australia's political class has been forced to think about national strategy in a world without US leadership.

You can see clear signs of this in three speeches by two federal politicians, Liberal and Labor, in just the past week.

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In fact, Malcolm Turnbull's speech to the Asia Pacific Regional Conference in Peth on Saturday was premised entirely on the assumption that the US will not be an active participant in building Australia's economic future.

Partly, Turnbull was merely pointing out the great scope for prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. Even beyond China's breakneck growth phase, he said, "the epicentre of opportunity is shifting closer to Australia within Asia.

"India is now the world's fastest-growing major economy," he said. "Bollywood sells twice as many cinema tickets as Hollywood. Jakarta is now the world's most active city on Instagram Stories.

"And while the number of Chinese visitors in Australia surged 10 per cent last year and 13 per cent from Japan, they rose 15 per cent from India and 23 per cent from Indonesia."

But the Prime Minister's key theme was that the region's growth was based on a rules-based order that, while it was established by the US, must now be carried on without it.

He said, for instance, that while the US under Trump has pulled out of the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, the other 11 were working towards realising it regardless.

"I personally remain confident about America's long-term interests and commitment, but we cannot afford to wait," said Turnbull. He said that the TPP would be designed so that the US could "dock in" at some future date if it were ready.

"Our aim is to create an open architecture that enables any country to join, including China, provided they are willing to meet its high standards."

At the same time, he pointed out Australia's participation in a separate China-centric trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, as well as other negotiations on free trade deals with the EU, with Indonesia, and a forthcoming one with Peru as the start of a wider agreement with the fastest-growing Latin American nations.

"We should not be afraid of policy ambition, at a time when the global economic system is fraying at the seams. As the French President Emmanuel Macron recently put it, 'Democracy needs to recover its ambition.'

"Prosperity is a choice. Open markets do not happen by themselves. The default options are all bad.

"We have to think harder about who we are, where we are going and how we're going to get there." This speech is an economic companion piece to Turnbull's April speech on defence at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. It, too, was all about working with other countries to reinforce a rules-based order in the absence of the US, but in the field of geostrategy.

Labor's defence spokesman, Richard Marles​, one of the most impressive of the Labor frontbench, last week addressed the fundamentals of Australian national identity and strategy in a pair of speeches.

"If we are to navigate the turbulent waters of East Asia then we need to develop that part of our international personality which is specifically about leadership. That in turn means we need to to have a clear sense of who we are and what we are on about," Marles told an audience in London.

"We are a New World country that never had an independence movement. Until the Second World War Australians saw themselves as an outpost of this country. Our most unifying national figure was not a war hero or an independence leader. It was a cricketer: Don Bradman - and he definitely saw this place as the mother country.

"The kind of national discussion about nationhood that would lay the groundwork for who we are and what we are on about was never had.

"This is not a bad thing, but it does mean we have work to do and we need to begin to lead." Marles proposed a guiding formulation: "Leadership in the Pacific, activism in South East Asia."

Allan Gyngell observes that the Turnbull and Marles speeches "are pretty interesting because they're so similar - both illustrate people taking a deep breath and trying to think from the beginning what it all means.

"Recognition that we need to have Australian leadership in all of this is very interesting," he told me.

Beyond Turnbull and Marles, the leadership teams of both Labor and Liberal  have launched wide-ranging projects to energise national strategy. Labor shadow treasurer Chris Bowen recently announced work on a "whole-of-government" plan called FutureAsia to produce a "step change" in Australia's Asian engagement.

And the Turnbull government will soon publish its foreign policy white paper to set out its strategy for an Australia that cannot wait for the US to recover its wits and its leadership.

This burst of thinking on a newly active Australian strategy would not have happened without Trump. Perhaps we can thank his America First for making us think about Australia First.

Peter Hartcher is international editor.

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