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North Korea and the case for ANZUS

By Malcolm Davis

Prime Minister Turnbull flagged Australia’s early support for the United States in the event that North Korea were to attack US forces on the Peninsula or elsewhere in the region, including Guam, noting the importance of the ANZUS Treaty. Some argue that Prime Minister Turnbull’s statement invoking ANZUS was a premature and unnecessary blank cheque, which the US would cash at its leisure. Far from tying our hands and committing early to war, the Prime Minister in reinforcing ANZUS, has strengthened Australia’s voice in responding to Pyongyang.

Certainly the Prime Minister has pre-empted Cabinet debate on the issue. He would have been wiser to have spoken more cautiously, highlighting, as his Foreign Minister did, the process rather than one potential outcome. However I think it’s also important to note that Turnbull did not commit to an ANZUS intervention in the event of a US unilateral military action. He was speaking about the context of a North Korean attack on US forces.

As the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has noted, ANZUS requires both parties to consult, and then a decision on if, how and when to intervene militarily, would be made by Cabinet. In this manner ANZUS is not an automatic trigger for Australian intervention into any Korean War. Furthermore, in making that choice, Cabinet would confront the prospect that It’s not only the US that is under growing threat of nuclear attack by North Korea, but also its key allies in Asia, including South Korea and Japan, as well as Australia. North Korea’s nuclear threats also resonate at a global level, threatening international stability and undermining norms against non-use of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation. This context of North Korean provocations and threats is important to keep in mind.

Committing to war means sending our young men and women into harm’s way, and the cost in human life could potentially be high. Let’s not sugar-coat the consequences of going to war, particularly given the bloody cauldron that prospective conflict on the Korean Peninsula would entail. However, Cabinet would also need to think about the immediate and long-term strategic and defence policy consequences of not supporting US forces if they are attacked by North Korea.

I’d argue that in the event of large scale North Korean aggression, it would be an unconscionable dereliction of trust in the eyes of the Washington for Australia to look the other way, and tell the Americans they are on their own. We would lose credibility in the eyes of our other key regional partners as well, who would never again count on Australia to honour its most vital commitments. We’d lose the real benefits gained from ANZUS in terms of intelligence cooperation, policy coordination and access, and access to essential military capabilities. Some such capabilities, like Extended Nuclear Deterrence, we could not easily replace. In walking away from ANZUS, we would become a weaker, more insecure, and less influential power in the region and globally.

Much has been made of the term ‘consult’ under the ANZUS process. Here we need a dose of reality. The US will expect more than just a phone call if their forces on the Peninsula are attacked, or if North Korean missiles strike at Guam. So what are our military options? Certainly Australia would be in a position to offer military assistance, through rapid deployment of air power much like we have done in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, the significant threat posed by North Korea’s submarines would suggest we consider deploying naval forces including our Collins class submarines, naval surface combatants and maritime patrol aircraft. The US and South Korea would also benefit from deployment of Army Special Forces on the ground. Finally as part of United Nations Command (UNC) established under the 1953 Armistice, Australia would be involved, certainly at a command and planning level as well.

All these options are open to Australia and it will be Cabinet that will make that final decision. Mentioning our commitment to the US-Australia alliance under ANZUS now does not tie our hands or force us to war. But if North Korea attacks we have responsibilities under ANZUS that we should not shirk.  


Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst, defence strategy and capability, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 14 Aug 2017