As Donald Trump toughens his rhetoric on North Korea, the implications for Australia and other neighbours are becoming clearer. By Karen Middleton.

Trump’s message to China on North Korea

At Harvard University’s Kennedy School recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull won an indirect plaudit, not for policymaking but pronunciation.

During a panel discussion on an upcoming book by political scientist and Harvard professor Graham Allison, Turnbull was the only leader featured in a series of video clips who didn’t mangle the pronunciation of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian and military leader who wrote History of the Peloponnesian War on the 5th-century battle between Athens and Sparta.

A student of the classics, Turnbull has previously attracted much less-flattering attention at home for dropping into his speeches esoteric references to Thucydides.

But his knowledge of the Athenian scholar’s seminal writings on warfare may have found their modern relevance in the current sense of crisis on the Korean peninsula and the concern to avoid “the Thucydides trap”. The phrase is used in international relations – and coined by Allison – to describe a rising power causing fear in an established power, escalating to war.

In this case, the rising power is not actually North Korea but China, its closest friend.

As elsewhere in the world, senior figures within the Australian government and Defence establishment are watching developments on the Korean peninsula closely, both for the immediate risk of escalation and the longer-term economic and security implications, especially involving the United States and China.

If things were to go bad, the countries other than North Korea that would be most affected by a military strike or involved in any ensuing war – the US, South Korea, Japan and China – are Australia’s largest trading partners. That could have a devastating economic impact on this country, even if North Korea’s missiles can’t yet reach here.

Few military analysts seem to believe it will come to that. But the public language in debate has shifted noticeably, in relation to both North Korea and China.

Beyond the immediate concerns about the rogue Korean state, the flashpoint is being used to shape even more crucial future ties between the current world superpower – the US – and China.

Military analysts note that it isn’t actually the behaviour of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, that has changed. It’s the behaviour of the US under President Donald Trump.

Before his election, Trump was espousing the rhetoric of retreat, vowing his country would pull back from its military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere. Now, having filled his senior cabinet security posts with players who are experienced in defence and security and respected in those circles, he is shifting from the back foot to the front.

Trump’s administration has revived an active focus on what his Republican predecessor George W. Bush described as “the axis of evil” – Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Trump’s unofficial axis is minus the dramatic rhetoric of Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address but has added two more points: Syria and the stateless insurgent force Daesh. On these, it has gone beyond word to deed.

The Americans responded swiftly to the recent deadly chemical weapons attack on the Syrian village of Khan Sheikhoun, attributed to the Syrian government, firing a barrage of 59 tomahawk missiles at its Shayrat military base, near Homs.

They followed that strike with another in Afghanistan, dropping the massive GBU-43 – also known as “MOAB”, short for “massive ordnance air blast” or “mother of all bombs” – on a network of Daesh tunnels and caves near the village of Asadkhel along the Pakistani border.

Senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and director of its counterterrorism policy centre Jacinta Carroll says Trump’s moves were much more hawkish than expected and ran distinctly counter to his pre-election rhetoric.

“These are all ways to show there is a strong and different US administration,” Carroll tells The Saturday Paper. “We were quite surprised because it’s Trump. We wouldn’t have been surprised if it was Hillary Clinton doing this.”

While each action had its specific context and purpose, Australian strategic planners view both actions as sending other messages, too.

They are being seen as a deliberate sign from the US that it can and will make good on its threats to act and that any action it takes can be targeted and precise, not necessarily delivering mass obliteration or heralding regime change.

Those messages are being directed beyond their immediate targets, at North Korea and Iran.

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unexpectedly ramped up criticism of Iran, describing the Obama administration’s nuclear de-escalation deal as “a failure”, just hours after his own department said Iran was complying with it.

Tillerson likened Iran to North Korea and suggested the US government was reconsidering the suspension of sanctions that were a condition of the nuclear deal.

“The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran,” Tillerson told journalists. “The evidence is clear: Iran’s provocative actions threaten the United States, the region and the world.”

In relation to North Korea, Trump suggests “all options are on the table”, apparently including a first strike against the regime’s military capabilities.

Vice-president Mike Pence, who is visiting Australia this weekend, confirmed during his swing through north Asia this week that the Obama administration’s doctrine of “strategic patience” with troublesome nation states has officially been jettisoned.

“Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response,” Pence said from the deck of a US aircraft carrier in Japan on Wednesday.

Trump is also saying US patience has officially run out. “Everybody has been outplayed,” he said of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, while hosting children at the White House for the traditional Easter egg roll. “They’ve all been outplayed by this gentleman and we’ll see what happens.”

Kim attempted to test a possibly nuclear missile last weekend in the Sea of Japan but it failed just after launch. The US administration is threatening that if the country tries to test another, it may shoot it down.

To underscore the threat, Trump has dispatched what he called “an armada” led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the direction of the Korean peninsula.

His administration is facing criticism for suggesting wrongly it was on the way days earlier, when it was actually completing military exercises with Australia first.

The US is also understood to be accelerating the installation of its controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, in South Korea – a truck-mounted missile defence system with a long-range radar that could shoot down incoming ballistic or other salvos from the north.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Carroll believes a US military strike on North Korea is unlikely but that its refusal to rule it out is important.

“It’s showing by language and actions that the US is determined to halt this reckless behaviour and to prevent this descending into conflict,” she says.

North Korea will mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army on Tuesday and Kim is expected to take the opportunity for another show of strength. The failure of the last launch, timed to mark the 105th birthday of Kim’s late grandfather Kim Il-sung last weekend, makes another attempt this week more likely.

While the missiles’ range is currently well short of the mainland US or northern Australia, the US island territory of Guam – with its military base and 160,000 US residents – is potentially within reach. Nearby Japan shares the US concern and Pyongyang has long had the ability to fire on the South Korean capital, Seoul.

With the support of the Australian government and other allies, Trump has decided to move now to stop the North Korean capability developing any further. He and his allies are turning to China to bring its own pressure to bear.

Engaging China positively on North Korea – just positively, full stop – will also make falling into the Thucydides trap of a war between China and the US much less likely in future.

Trump’s language on China has changed markedly since before the US presidential election, when he was accusing it of rigging its currency and condemning its activities in cyberspace. Now he is full of praise for the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who visited the US recently, later telephoned Trump to discuss the Korean peninsula, and who has since announced some preliminary restrictions in trade with North Korea.

“He’s working so nicely,” Trump said of Xi. “Many coal ships have been sent back, fuel has been sent back. They’re not dealing the same way. Nobody’s ever seen it like that. Nobody’s ever seen such a positive response on our behalf from China.”

Australia’s leadership is backing him in.

Prime Minister Turnbull accused North Korea this week of “reckless and dangerous conduct”.

“The real obligation, the heaviest obligation, is on China because China is the nation that has the greatest leverage over North Korea,” Turnbull said. “It has the greatest obligation and responsibility to bring North Korea back into a realm of at least responsibility in terms of its engagement with its neighbours.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop went further.

“This is a significant issue for China,” she told Sky News before heading to Japan with Defence Minister Marise Payne for annual talks. “It can no longer shirk responsibility … The idea that this is a bilateral issue between the US and North Korea is long gone and now is the time for China to prove it can be a regional leader.”

Bishop said she was encouraged by China’s response but that it could use more of its “financial clout”.

Shadow foreign minister Penny Wong supports the government’s position.

“It’s not going to be resolved bilaterally,” Wong told ABC Radio National on Thursday. “It’s going to be resolved by co-ordination, particularly between the US and China.”

Bishop said the US would try “every other creative option” before military force – for which she did not expect Australia would be asked to take part.

But the acting head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, Professor John Blaxland, is not convinced Australia would remain out of any military conflict.

“There would be strong pressure for Australia to be involved, to volunteer a maritime contribution,” Blaxland tells The Saturday Paper. He said any contribution could also include C-17 aircraft, the new Growler electronic attack aircraft and personnel capable of dealing with a chemical or other mass-destruction weapons attack.

Blaxland says China also does not want an unstable peninsula and it’s in its interests to pull North Korea back.

China is unhappy about the THAAD missile defence system but the US says that while the north is behaving aggressively, it stays.

“China would like to see the US presence in South Korea wound right back,” Blaxland says. “The only declared reason for the US presence in South Korea is North Korea.”

Unsurprisingly, the North Koreans don’t like the THAAD system either. “The United States is disturbing global peace and stability and insisting on gangster-like logic,” its deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Kim In-ryong, said in New York this week.

“… The United States has introduced in South Korea, the Korean peninsula, the world’s biggest hotspot, a huge nuclear strategic asset, seriously threatening the peace and security of the peninsula and pushing the situation there to the brink of war.”

Despite the flaying rhetoric, some senior Australian officials insist what is being portrayed as a crisis is largely media-driven.

They distinguish between Trump’s public persona, with his sensational tweets and bombastic media engagement, and the administration’s actions, which they say are carefully calibrated.

On this, they point to the steadying influences of the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, the national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, the secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, and Vice-president Pence.

Pence’s Australian visit is ostensibly a goodwill exercise to reaffirm the relationship under the new administration. North Korea and developments in the Middle East loom large in the weekend talks.

Australia has received no request to increase its operational contributions in Iraq and Syria or in Afghanistan – but officials are not ruling it out.

The US is considering the findings of a review of overall Middle East operations first.

John Blaxland argues Australia should be focused much more on its own region. “I am concerned that this [position] is formed by listening to the views of pundits who have Washington’s interests paramount, and these sometimes are not quite congruent with Australia’s,” Blaxland says.

He asks how much relative effort is being placed on combating the rise of extremism in Australia’s own neighbourhood, South-East Asia, and answers his own question: “Very little – not nearly enough.”

But Blaxland says he is confident Australia’s military planners have a better sense of the “neighbourhood” than in the past and warns against neglecting it, lest Australia become “a middle power with small-power pretensions”.

He points back to the deterioration in East Timor in 2006 after Australian forces left as evidence of what can occur, and urges government to heed the lessons of history.

It was a message echoed at the recent Harvard seminar on Graham Allison’s book, Destined for War: Can the US and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

During the panel discussion, Samantha Power, formerly ambassador to the United Nations under Barack Obama and recently appointed at Harvard, also remarked on the value of noting the past.

Apparently directed at the US, her comment may well serve as encouragement and advice to students of history such as Malcolm Turnbull and others less well read.

“History is not present enough in senior decision-making discussions,” Power observed bluntly.

Grandiose references to ancient Greece aside, having a few more leaders who’ve studied the mistakes of history may indeed help avoid repeating them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2017 as "Trump’s message to North Korea".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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