In a typical destabilising move, North Korea launched a missile last Wednesday (despite having previously advised that the launch would be in late December). An unpredictable and defiant North Korea is nothing new—it’s something that we came to expect from Kim Jong-Il, and his successor appears to be no different. North Korean missile and nuclear provocations have direct security implications for neighbouring states and the United States (as a primary target of North Korean aggression). What’s less obvious is that they also indirectly impact Australia’s strategic interests.
Managing North Korea and strategies for bringing it into line has been an important election issue for political candidates in both Japan and South Korea—so this latest missile launch stands to influence the outcome of upcoming elections (16 December for Japan and 19 December for South Korea). North Korea’s latest provocation will only serve to further consolidate votes for conservative candidates; Ms Park in South Korea, and Mr Abe in Japan.
More hard-line conservative governments in Tokyo and Seoul might actually bode well for Australia’s strategic interests. Both countries are strategic partners for Australia as part of the ‘hub and spokes’ alliance arrangements with the United States. While a hostile North Korea continues to develop long-range missile capability, Tokyo and Seoul will have even greater incentive to reach out to like-minded countries like Australia to address common security threats. A stronger drive in Seoul to reinforce military ties with allies in the region stands to improve Australia–South Korea defence cooperation and maximise both country’s middle power status. Similarly, if this latest missile launch precipitates a shift in Japan’s defence policy to allow it the right to collective self-defence and to come to the aid of an ally, this shift would be a welcome development for Australia–Japanese defence cooperation.
Some analysts, including Hugh White, have advocated a pause in developing a closer strategic alliance with Japan, while others such as Peter Jennings assert that closer Australia–Japan defence cooperation would see Australia make a bigger contribution to regional security. On balance, Australia and Japan share more strategic interests than critics attest and, while there are differences in strategic outlook between the countries, as we progress into the Asian Century and are forced to confront new and emerging security threats, having Japan as a strategic partner will be to our great benefit.
However, there’s also a downside for Australia (and everyone else) in this missile launch. It has potential to increase strategic rivalry between the US and China. Disagreement over how to handle North Korea has caused diplomatic rows between the US and China in the past, further increasing strategic tension between Washington and Beijing. As is often the case, the US has come out swinging, calling for tougher sanctions, while China has taken a softer stance, saying it ‘regrets’ the launch. The impasse between the US and China has meant that the UNSC couldn’t agree to take action, and has only agreed to continue consultations on an appropriate response. This missile launch also has the potential to draw the US military further into North East Asia, thereby increasing the risk of PLA–US Navy stand-offs. In the past when the US has conducted military exercises with South Korea and Japan to reassure them after a North Korean provocation, China has accused the US of pursuing a policy of containment. Should the US try to reassure its allies in Asia after this latest North Korean act of aggression, for example through more military exercises with South Korea and with South East Asian countries, another spat with China could ensue. While a level of US presence in the region is good for Australia’s interests, the chance of further confrontation between the US and China and a general deterioration in their relations isn’t.
So where does this leave us? Ultimately, Australia has little influence in disputes between the US and China, and has no place (or desire) to become involved in resolving the North Korean issue. So, we’ll have to sit back, wait and see how the US and China interact over this issue. But with Japan and South Korea looking for other ways to shore up their security and improve their defence partnerships, Australia needs to be waiting with open arms.
Hayley Channer is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user NOS Nieuws.