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An Intrepid encounter for Trump and Turnbull

Peter JenningsAuthor: Peter Jennings

There’s no better place for Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump to have their first meeting than on the aircraft carrier the USS Intrepid, now a floating museum in New York Harbor.

The ‘Fighting I’, as it was called by its crew, fought in Douglas McArthur’s island hopping campaign of 1944 and 1945, including the bloody Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippines, where the Intrepid was hit by four kamikaze aircraft.

After the war the Intrepid was upgraded and served in the Atlantic at the height of the Cold War before returning to the Pacific for carrier operations during the Vietnam War.

US Senator John McCain – who will soon visit Sydney and is an influential friend of Australia in Washington DC – served as a pilot on the ship. In 1961, he survived a dangerous landing on the Intrepid after his fighter aircraft hit power lines flying low over southern Spain.

The ‘Fighting I’ is a 30,000-ton reminder of how America and its allies have fought together in the Pacific and the Atlantic for three generations, to preserve what our gentler age calls the ‘international rule of law’ or the ‘rules based order’.

The lesson for Trump is that America is strongest when it’s working with its allies. The lesson for Turnbull is that peace in the Pacific is again looking shaky. When it comes to war – which is what is at stake on the Korean peninsula – the rule of law is enforced by the modern-day versions of the USS Intrepid.

All of which means that Trump and Turnbull need to do more than just bask in the symbolism of a venerable warship. The real focus of the meeting must be on strengthening the modern alliance relationship between Australia and the United States.

The tense situation on the Korean peninsula will be top of the discussion list. Trump hopes to have successfully persuaded President Xi of China to have one last try at using economic sanctions to squeeze the North into stopping its nuclear weapons tests and missile launches.

Over the weekend China was stalling on sanctions because they want the United States to stop setting up an anti-missile system in South Korea. Trump will worry that his ‘deal’ with President Xi isn’t sticking.

And another failed North Koran missile test shows that Kim Jong-un isn’t getting the message. He will keep testing until forced to stop.

It’s vital to give diplomacy one last chance but, make no mistake, the Americans won’t tolerate North Korea refining its nuclear weapons to the point that it can nuke Los Angeles. 

Any US military strike designed to destroy the North’s missiles and nuclear devices carries the high risk that Kim Jong-un will retaliate with an artillery barrage on South Korea’s capital, Seoul.

Paul Keating can make crass jokes about sinking American warships, glug, glug, glug – he’s no John Curtin – but the reality is Australians can’t pretend that Korea doesn’t matter to us.

Australia doesn’t have an exit strategy from our own region. We’re a party to the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 and we’re so heavily invested in the economies of North Asia that any conflict will draw us in.

Here’s one small example: one third of our jet aircraft turbine fuel comes from South Korea, and two thirds come from North Asia more broadly. Australia doesn’t refine jet fuel, and in February this year our total national reserves equaled 15 days of commercial and military flying.

A crisis on the Korean peninsula could mean that all Australian aviation could be grounded in a little over a fortnight.

The Americans certainly expect that Australia will be involved in any long-term military action over Korea. Our own strategic interests mean that we should be there. At his meeting on the Intrepid, Turnbull should ask Trump to bring Australia into America’s planning for military operations.

Turnbull also needs to assure Trump that plans remain on track to lift defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2021. Trump has told the NATO countries that they need to lift their defence spending to that level, and not just rely on the US security guarantee.

Yes, there are budget pressures in Australia, but this would be a disastrous moment for Australia to go soft on its defence spending plans.  This isn’t about pleasing the Americans; our worsening short term strategic outlook means we need to strengthen defence.

Trump and Turnbull will also talk about the war against ISIL, which is heading in the right direction in Iraq but still mired in confusion in Syria. It wouldn’t be surprising if the US asked Australia to do more – for example by asking for some Special Forces to be deployed in Iraq or Syria.

Turnbull’s best response would again be to ask for a seat at the planning table looking at the future of the military operation against ISIL. If we fight, we must share in planning the battle.

I suspect this will be a successful meeting. No matter how he looks and sounds on TV, Trump is said to be engaging and personable in face to face meetings. Hopefully a close personal connection develops between Donald and Malcolm. The alliance deserves their personal commitment and a troubled Asia-Pacific needs stronger Australia-US military ties to stop the peace from fraying any further.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published:  Herald Sun. 01 May 2017