As the United States endeavors to build a coalition of the willing against North Korea, what role would long-time ally Australia play in a potential conflict?
Australia has joined for the first time the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercises underway now between the United States and South Korea to defend the latter from a North Korea attack.
The exercises, scheduled to run from August 21-31, are the world’s biggest computerized command and control drill, with over 50,000 South Korean and 17,000 American soldiers participating.
Australia’s inclusion comes as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offers his support in any potential war with North Korea. While North Korea’s mouthpiece media said Australia’s participation in the exercise was “suicidal”, Canberra’s role in any real conflict would likely be minimal.
Australia is sending a couple dozen officers and no troops to the decades-old war games previously known as Ulchi-Focus Lens. Still, Turnbull said on August 10: “Be under no misapprehension: in terms of defense we [Australia and US] are joined at the hip.”
“If there is an attack on the United States by North Korea, then the ANZUS Treaty will be invoked and Australia will come to the aid of the United States, just as if there was an attack on Australia, the United States would come to our aid,” the Australian leader said, referring to the 1951 Australia, New Zealand and US mutual defense treaty.
The US and Australia held their biennial Talisman Saber exercises in northern Australia in June this year. The bilateral exercises, focused on crisis-action planning and contingency response, involved more than 33,000 Australian and US troops. Over 20 ships and 200 aircraft took part in what was the largest joint exercise ever.
News reports focused on the bilateral alliance earlier this month when a US military aircraft crashed off Australia’s northeast coast, killing three American Marines. The MV-22 Osprey crashed after taking off from the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship that was used in the Talisman Saber exercise, reports said.
US defense stalwarts have suggested that collective arrangement could put Australia in North Korea’s sights. Former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has urged Australia to protect itself from a possible North Korean strike using its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system.
The northern Australian city of Darwin is situated about as close to North Korea as the US state of Alaska. A bilateral agreement struck in 2011 allows for 2,500 US Marines to base at Darwin’s Robertson Barracks on a rotating basis. Still, independent observers think Australia would be an unlikely choice of target if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un launched missiles in either pre-emptive or retaliatory attacks.
The last time ANZUS was actually invoked was after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the US. Australia later joined the US-led Iraq invasion in 2003 even though it was not directly required by ANZUS.
The US and Australia have cooperated closely on counterterrorism, including through the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing alliance comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and the US.
It’s not clear, however, that the public would support Australia’s involvement in a US-led conflict with North Korea. Australians have looked at the legacies of the wars they’ve joined with America, namely Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and they don’t always like the results.
The Iraq conflict, in which Australia provided air, maritime and Special
Forces operations, was particularly unpopular.
US President Donald Trump has low opinion ratings in Australia, with one poll showing a majority of Australians preferred to see their nation distance itself from the US during Trump’s presidency. Nor was Trump’s bombastic threat to drown North Korea in “fire and fury” well-received by a war-wary Australian public.
While Turnbull and Trump reportedly had a tense first telephone conversation, mainly over refugee resettlement issues, the Australian leader reportedly told his US counterpart “You can count on me. I will be there again and again,” in a leaked January conversation.
This, of course, is not a new Australian stance towards America. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said much the same to previous US President Barack Obama, despite their ideological differences. But it’s not clear to many Australians that a confrontation with North Korea is necessarily in the national interest
Lost in the debate are two main points: 1) Trump’s rhetoric and action on the Korean Peninsula have not matched up, outside of the usual joint military exercises with South Korea, and 2) there have been no clear military moves in the area to signal a possible US pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon facilities.
Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist at the Perth USAsia Center think tank, argues that Australia does not figure prominently in US plans for war with North Korea. “In terms of what the US has in terms of Ops Plans…there is not a reliance upon or an assumption of direct Australian involvement on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
“I viewed the statement by PM Turnbull as a relatively low cost way for him to vocally demonstrate support for the alliance in a way that Donald Trump would see and hear that is not directly tied to any specific actions or any specific commitments.”
The centrality of ANZUS was discussed in Sydney this week at a conference on the alliance organized by the US Embassy and prominent Washington-based think tanks. Former Australian leaders Paul Keating and John Howard spoke at the event, highlighting the importance of the two sides’ deep relationship and shared values.
That message also will serve to remind Trump that action on the Korean Peninsula should not be unilateral. “Allies need to be consulted,” says Flake. Any war would have vast and damaging effects on South Korea, and Japan, both major Australian trade partners.
Jiyoung Song, who teaches Korean studies at the University of Melbourne, says Trump’s Asian allies are politely hiding dissatisfaction with his tough rhetoric. “Turnbull joining Trump with blank check military involvement is not wise to many eyes in South Korea.”
South Korea has said it prefers a diplomatic solution and its new president Moon Jae-in is a proponent of the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of diplomatic engagement. Australia would likely not have a useful place at that table, as Canberra is likely of little interest to North Korea as a significant negotiating partner.
Song says that Australia “is not seen as a direct aggressor in the Korean war by North Koreans. There was almost no direct hostility from Pyongyang against Canberra until recently when [Foreign Minister Julie] Bishop and Turnbull openly condemned North Korean nuclear tests and sided with the US.”
Australia has different engagement strategies with Japan and South Korea. There is often talk of “trilateral” between the US, Japan and Australia – shown in part by Abbot’s keenness to procure Japanese Soryu submarines and the three-way interoperability they would allow – while Australian-Korean strategic cooperation remains low.
Japan has long tried to engage a variety of regional partners and has a strong Indo-Pacific strategy, while South Korea largely does not. Even in nations where South Korea is the top investor, such as Vietnam, diplomatic engagement remains low.
With only 24 Australians scheduled to participate in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, no presumed clear operational role in a US strike on the Peninsula, and only limited diplomatic engagement with South Korea, Australia’s role in a conflict would likely be more token than substantial.
While Turnbull’s message of support may have thrown a scare into the general public, Australia is still far from committing boots on the ground, planes in the sky or boats in the waters of the Korean peninsula.