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Australia’s Overzealous Response to the North Korea Crisis

31 Aug 2017
By John McCarthy AO FAIIA

Instead of statements of blind loyalty, Australia would be better served by focusing on what it can do as a second-tier partner to the main players in the crisis.

Australia’s reaction to the exchanges between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump has been couched principally in terms of what North Korea might do to Australia and of what Australia’s treaty obligations to the United States mean under ANZUS. This seems to miss the point. As important as the North Korea issue is for everyone, it is primarily about the countries of Northeast Asia and the United States.

Australia sees the world most often in terms of itself. This is of course a common failing with all nation states. Australia may not be the worst offender, but it has room for improvement.

So when Kim engages in his dangerous tomfoolery, the Australian government cites an existential threat to Australia. It is true that if Kim can hit Los Angeles, he can also hit Sydney. But Berlin is 500 kilometres closer to Pyongyang than Sydney. London is only further by 100 kilometres. And there are many other obvious targets closer to the North Korean mainland—Seoul and Tokyo to begin with. So we have to keep things in perspective.

After the latest exchanges [8-9 August] on North Korea, Australia’s immediate reaction was to proclaim its possible military involvement should things heat up on the peninsula. Some Australian officials and commentators looked back to the Korean War. As one of the nations under the UN command when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, it was suggested Australia would be obliged to react if North Korea broke the terms of the armistice. If there is anything to this assertion—which is certainly subject to challenge—it will puzzle some of the other co-combatants of the time who range from Britain and France to Turkey, Colombia, Ethiopia and Luxembourg.

In the context of a possible missile launch towards Guam, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Australia would be “joined at the hip” with the United States (in terms of its honouring the ANZUS treaty should the United States be attacked). Fine, Australia is in an alliance. Most Australians would want to stay in it. And while Asian partners may wonder about the pitch of Australia’s alliance rhetoric, some—including Japan, India and some ASEAN countries—see ANZUS as in their interest as well as in Australia’s. But is emphasis on the alliance in this particular context really needed?

North Korean behaviour is more of a genuine existential threat to South Korea and Japan than it is to the United States. It also has enormous negative implications for China. Hence Australia’s main focus should be on what it can do as a second-tier player to help the main players—and not just the United States —develop policies which have some prospect of success.

No doubt Australia’s diplomats, who are generally good at their jobs, are doing just this. But again, the question for Australia is where it places its policy emphasis.

If Australia is to be taken seriously as an independent and useful voice on this or any other Asian security issue, it would do better than to closely associate itself explicitly or implicitly with the garbled policy messages coming from the Trump administration in Washington, whatever the good sense of some in the US cabinet and armed services. Rather than making statements of unalloyed fealty to the United States, Australia should demonstrate an awareness that the strategic circumstances in which it, its allies and its adversaries operate in this century are different to those in the last.

In the Cold War, both sides understood each other and for the most part behaved predictably. Australia and the alliance framework worked on the basis that most of the time they would be led if not always wisely, at least rationally. The nuclear powers knew the dangers of mistakes and behaved accordingly. So being joined at the hip to the United States was more a matter of occasional embarrassment than imprudent policy.

We have now entered an era in which there is not the same common sense on the nuclear board. Kim presumably does not want suicide for his country and Trump is being guided by some good people. But given the two main protagonists are inadequate men, Australia and its alliance partners cannot afford to fall unquestioningly behind US policy. Misjudgements are more likely than they once would have been. Australia may need to differ and say so. And in making public commitments, Australia should above all avoid excessive zeal.

John McCarthy AO FAIIA is a former ambassador to the US, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico and Vietnam and former high commissioner to India. He is a immediate past national president and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. 

This article was originally published on East Asia Forum on 25 August 2017. It is republished with permission.