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Turnbull’s carte blanche on North Korea: has Australia been committed to war?

Image credit: Jim Mattis (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The incendiary rhetoric of both Washington and Pyongyang has been intensifying in past weeks. While the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula must not be overestimated, the war of words has not been so dangerous in decades. Australia, with its location in the Asia-Pacific and its dependence on the US alliance as a lodestar of security policy, has a lot at stake if Washington acts on President Donald Trump’s threats.

The tensions reached new highs when, provoked by Trump’s statement that any further threats from North Korea would ‘be met with fire and fury’, Pyongyang threatened a missile strike against the US Territory of Guam. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has seemingly eased up, claiming he will watch the US ‘a little more’ before making a decision. The US position is equally incoherent as other officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, seek to defuse tensions. In an environment moulded by narcissistic leaders prone to belligerent rhetoric, the potential for miscalculation is high.

Australia has rightly taken these threats seriously. Intelligence suggests the pace of North Korea’s progress to long-range nuclear strike capability has exceeded expectations. The US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that North Korea has the ability to arm missiles with a miniaturised nuclear warhead. If accurate, North Korea’s nuclear capability is advancing to the point where Australia is well within striking range, and Kim has previously threatened that Australia could be a target. While this remains extremely unlikely, even a remote possibility of a nuclear strike fundamentally impacts Australia’s security landscape.

It’s in this context that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had his ‘all the way with LBJ’ moment, declaring that if North Korea attacks the US, ‘the ANZUS Treaty will be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States’, as the two nations are ‘joined at the hip’. The ANZUS Treaty does not require that Australia go to war, but merely ‘consult’ with the US when their security is threatened in the Pacific, and ‘act to meet the common danger’ of an armed attack in the Pacific or against the US. However, Turnbull’s claim that he would regard an attack on the US as a casus belli (an event justifying war) has been criticised as chaining Australian security to the actions of a president prone to hubris and untested in conflict.

The ANZUS Treaty has only been invoked once before, by then prime minister John Howard in response to the 2001 September 11 attacks on the US. Much has been made of the need to avoid replicating the failures of this intervention in the Middle East. Furthermore, Australian efforts to involve the US in regional conflicts, such as the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in the 1960s were unsuccessful. Arguably, when push comes to shove, the US’ commitment to ANZUS has never matched that of Australia’s.

However premature and perhaps ill-chosen, Turnbull’s comments should not be overstated. Turnbull has not committed Australian troops to war in the event of a US pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Nor did he place Australia on an inescapable trajectory to war. Yet, were Pyongyang to attack US forces or Guam, Washington would expect more than mere consultation under Australia’s ANZUS obligations. It would be irresponsible for Australian leaders to turn a blind eye to the brewing tension. Australia’s position in the Asia-Pacific region means that it would inevitably be implicated in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, particularly one that involves the US. Turnbull is clearly cognisant of this.

If Australia were to step away from the North Korea issue, it would risk sacrificing a key security partnership and, consequently, sharing of intelligence and defence capability. Most importantly, by failing to be a strong voice against rampant nuclearisation, Australia would be perceived as an inconsistent and less influential regional leader.

The risk of war on the Korean Peninsula should not be overestimated. Trump’s threats have been interpreted as hyperbole, an unorthodox attempt to follow fairly orthodox US policy by encouraging China to facilitate de-nuclearisation negotiations. The recent unanimous UN Security Council vote in favour of imposing further sanctions on North Korea demonstrates this alignment of China and the US. Realistically, however, the issue will likely continue to be insoluble. The best outcome would be the de-escalation of tensions in the region, and increased scope for negotiations. There is no military solution to North Korea. History has shown us that war is not a viable option.

The more the war of words escalates, however, the greater the danger of a miscalculation that triggers an incredibly destructive conflict. Turnbull’s ‘blank cheque’ that ties Australia to an unpredictable leader is a testament to the high-stakes involved. Turnbull’s promise should be interpreted as what it really is: a pragmatic response to the volatile North Korean flashpoint.

Emma Squires is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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