By Christopher Kennedy
Caught in a strategic hub between China and Japan, North Korea has always been a place of conflict. If the Chinese or the Mongols we’re not invading the Japanese were having a go. Australia, instead of being a diplomatic hub between Chinese and American interests in this present Korean conflict, for various reasons has thrown its hand in with Trump. In part for a photo-op with Vice-President Pence and future opportunities in a very lucrative war economy. And the sheep farmers did very well out of the last one.
Yet the silliness of the timing of the statement – before a long discussion with the Chinese on the matter, was the height of diplomatic blunders. Like the driver of a car that speeds up in response to seeing a crash ahead, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull may well have added to the problem.
As for the Chinese, I think they are quietly getting more and more furious. They are asking for calm, probably as they don’t have an answer to the problem. And no one says that the nuclear weapons North Korea has aimed at Seoul cannot just as quickly be aimed at Beijing. Now Australia has called for “American leadership” in this present time is not either helping anyone and simply making the Chinese more furious.
But what do they mean by the “Americans”? Some spiritual benevolence that will somehow emanate from the current state in crisis? Do our present leaders, caught in one bad poll after another really see a quick fix with a war in a Korea? Wars in Korea tend to be long and bloody. Like Afghanistan; like Vietnam. It’s just one of those places everyone wants control of as it leads straight into the Chinese heartland. Getting the picture? The Americans refuse to lift their game into space. They are involved in the same territorial disputes the fathers of their Constitution tried to keep them out of.
So Australia is now caught in a surreal game of nuclear ping-pong between two states while annoying the hell out of the very important third state of China. As for South Korea, they are marching in the streets against American influence in the region.
If Australia played the neutral card in the Korean conflict it may have averted a confrontation in the near future. Instead of balancing its heart (American values and liberties) with its head (Chinese money), Australia has now played itself into a corner.
There is a wall across Korea – now Trump wants a wall with Mexico. Other people have built walls. Other people tear them down. Its not usually hard to tear them down as they tend to be symbolic – ever since Hadrian’s Wall was built across the northern ‘wastelands’ of Britain. It was only a couple of meters high and simply meant we have reached the end of empire – from now on you are not taxed.
North Korea is a different sort of wall. An armed wall and the consequences of attack would be horrendous for all sides.
Pushing the Chinese to let American hold the land that could conceivably mean an invasion of China is going to be very hard for them to stomach. Also hard, however, is having a nuclear armed neighbour that is increasing ties with the Russians. It may be enough for the Chinese to say, “Hey. The American press says that Trump is a puppet of Putin. By recent events this may just be true?”
Who knows? What can you understand by his actions, and he has said enough for no-one to believe his words. Does he have an inkling of what an invasion of North Korea could mean? Or is all this a cunning plan by Putin to end up with much more influence in North Korea and Asia generally?
According to Claudius the Emperor of Rome there are two reasons to invade another country and you must suit your tactics to these two. One reason is to raid. Here you take, plunder, desecrate etc. The other is to invade and take the country by force into vassalage. In that case you treat the local gods with respect, don’t cause damage, and basically keep the peace. He was a good man for his time, Claudius. He did not say kill one in two thousand people to gain respect … a solution advanced very successfully by the Emperor Qin of China. As for the Americans, killing twenty per cent of the population in North Korea during the previous conflict seems not to be enough.
However, the reality of dealing with a nuclear-armed state run by another man with a bad haircut and megalomania problems without some help is now unacceptable. And what form will that help be, and as to how much do we need to help ourselves?
Faced now with the hard reality of not one but two idiots with access to nuclear options, can we adapt quickly and independently? Do we have a framework that says “OK, following the Americans is not the best of moves at the moment – can our military work without them? Do our intelligence services adapt quickly enough? And most importantly, whom are our allies in the region seeing the problem of North Korea as a shared one?”
Presently Trump is working through the leaders in the region and their response so far has been muted. China is a major trading partner with all these countries. They are not going to be happy. The front runner of the South Korean elections has already stated he will do China’s bidding as far as missile defence systems now being installed by the Americans in South Korea and remove them.
It’s all about China and nothing to do with North Korea, it would seem. But then again, controlling North Korea has always been. Something the Koreans learned a long time ago.
So, after a week has passed since the North Koreans offered to incinerate us, what have we learned? That the blind following of the American line is not always in our best interests. American interest in Asia means military interests first – this is reflected in their attitude to Australia, where recent meetings have revolved around how much we would pay for their war machines. As a leverage point in discussion with the President. Great. How much do we get back for the lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq? I don’t know who makes those sums work but they certainly don’t allow for the hell experienced by many of our veterans.
Getting out of the rut where we supply the raw materials and men for empire is something that both sides of Australian politics must face. We are a mature, successful country and yet we have no inkling on how to behave. And it’s putting us in danger.
Christopher Kennedy is a poet and foreign affairs analyst. He holds a degree in Asian studies from Murdoch university, has written widely for newspapers and journals, and moderated Australia Asia Internet.