Australia: where to with North Asian security?
25 Jan 2018|

Last week’s one-day meeting of Australian and Japanese prime ministers in Tokyo will reportedly lead to strengthened bilateral defence ties, supposedly to enhance regional security in the face of ‘North Korean aggression’ and ‘the strategic rise of China’.

In a joint statement, the two leaders agreed to promote ‘deeper and broader defence cooperation’ this year, including exercises, operations, capacity-building and mutual visits by the military forces of Japan and Australia.

What Australia hopes to gain from upgrading the security relationship remains unclear.

Selling Australian military equipment to Japan and having Japanese forces exercising in northern Australia aren’t problems for most Australians. However, a more substantive link to Japan’s security, such as Australian military personnel training and exercising in Japan, could involve Australia unnecessarily with tensions in Northeast Asia that have little to do with our security interests.

At a press conference with his Japanese counterpart Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commented, ‘We discussed at considerable length the threats posed by the reckless rogue regime in North Korea.’ He went on to say, ‘We discussed the importance of ensuring the economic sanctions are enforced rigorously so that this regime is brought to its senses and stops threatening in the manner that it does the peace and stability of our region.’

Both parties claimed that it’s vital to boost military cooperation given the tense regional situation, ‘with North Korea’s missile programme bringing the world closer to nuclear conflict than at any time since the Cold War’.

Economic sanctions against North Korea won’t be effective in bringing about denuclearisation of the peninsula because Kim Jong-Un sees the nuclear missile program as vital for his regime’s survival. Sanctions will only bring more hardship for North Korean workers who can’t afford to supplement their already-limited food intake.

North Korea becoming a nuclear-weapon state doesn’t spell the end of strategic stability in North Asia—or in the broader Pacific region. Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program is intended to give North Korea the capability to deliver a nuclear strike against US territory—in order to deter the US from attacking North Korea. Japan has never been an intended target, although Tokyo is understandably nervous about North Korea launching test missiles in its direction. No doubt North Korea would prefer to launch its missiles in another direction so the US and Japan can’t recover parts from them, but geography limits its launch options.

North and South Korea are probably best left to work out their relationship for themselves. When they’ve been able to conduct direct talks without US involvement, they seem to have managed reasonably well. There’s certainly a new spirit of harmony between the two at the moment in the lead-up to the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. It’s in South Korea’s interest, of course, to be magnanimous about inviting the North to attend the games. This will help ensure that the North doesn’t disrupt them. At the same time, it’s in North Korea’s interest to showcase its softer side on the world stage, and not allow the South to get all the positive publicity.

North–South harmony will probably disintegrate with the next round of US – South Korea military exercises, scheduled for late March 2018—after the Paralympic Games. Pressure to continue the exercises seems to be coming mainly from the US. It’s of course possible that President Donald Trump sees some value in keeping tensions high on the peninsula to distract Americans from his political problems at home. However, high tensions risk miscalculation and escalation.

China’s expanding military and economic influence was also a factor in encouraging Australia and Japan to draw closer militarily. However, upgrading our security relationship with Japan will inevitably antagonise China.

While the US will continue to be our main long-term security partner, China is our main long-term economic partner and far more important to our economy. Beijing seems increasingly perplexed and irritated by what it regards as the hostile policies of the Turnbull government. We should also be wary of becoming too closely associated with the Trump administration’s unpredictable foreign policy and its latest focus on containing China.

What Australia could contribute militarily to Japan’s security would be symbolic rather than useful. The Australian Defence Force is roughly a quarter of the size of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, and the ultimate guarantor of Japan’s security is the 1960 US–Japan security treaty. Japan and the powerful US Pacific Command are more than capable of coping with foreseeable North Asian threat scenarios without our assistance.

Realistically, Australia’s core security interests lie closer to home, in Southeast Asia, the Southwest Pacific, and the Indian and Southern oceans—and not in North Asia, South Asia or the Middle East. In those more distant areas, Australian military involvement should be limited to small deployments of our very capable special forces soldiers—when it’s in our national interest to be involved. We also have a moral obligation to provide military engineers to assist with reconstruction in former conflict zones when we’ve been a party to the conflict.