The vassal of the Pacific: Turnbull's blind support for US-North Korea conflict

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(Meme via @Orringa )

Malcolm Turnbull's unqualified commitment to the U.S. in North Korea, apart from being undemocratic, may well be suicidal. Dr Binoy Kampmark reports.

OVER HIS TIME in the glare of public office, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has had the occasional moment of lucid penetration. 

Outside office, these moments have become stronger. Over North Korea, for instance, Rudd has little time to bite. Bluff, bluster and acts of hyperventilation are what matter to the regime in Pyongyang. 

But of greater concern was Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s unqualified commitment to any U.S. engagement with North Korea.

This concern came with good reason. 

In the leaked transcript of that scolding, and even scalding, phone encounter between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turnbull in January, Turnbull had already made a collective commitment masquerading as a personal one:

“You can count on me. I will be there again and again.” 

On Friday, on the airwaves of 3AW radio, the Prime Minister continued this obeisance, deciding to surgically jam Australia – at least in a symbolic way – to the U.S. body politic.

“Be under no misapprehension — in terms of defence we are joined at the hip.”

Again, the document that has been more trouble than is worth – the ANZUS Treaty – featured. 

“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.”

Rudd, speaking from New York, said:  

“My response to that statement when I first saw it on the weekend was simply ‘Good God, have the conservatives learnt nothing from the Iraq experience?’”

For Rudd, the legacy of history for the current Government was pulsing — and unpleasantly. 

“You never as an Australian prime minister, as an ally of the United States, give the Americans, before the event, a blank cheque.”

This was John Howard’s unpardonable act to (then) President George W. Bush on the Iraq invasion. Mindless commitments don’t tend to end well.

The play of events on Monday morning took another turn with Defence Industry Minister, Christopher Pyne, suggesting that the ANZUS Treaty would “immediately come into play” only in the event of a “conflagration” in the Korean Peninsula. But how that play unfolds is a question for some hair splitting pedants.

A word thrown about in relation to this is the fairly redundant term “consultation”. This, explains Pyne, is the necessary prelude “about any assistance we can provide and if that assistance is in our best interests”. If Guam was attacked, claimed Turnbull, aid would be afforded to Washington depending “on the circumstances and the consultation with our allies”.

The word is important, since it gives the impression that officials in Canberra are, somehow more than an embellished desk of the U.S. State Department, sovereign beings of independent thought and application. To "consult" entails a conferral between matched equals, a genuine appraisal of the situation that considers the affairs of both states.

The word “consult” appears in the 1951 ANZUS Treaty itself:

''The parties shall consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened in the Pacific.''  

In the ANZUS context, it is a crafty, weasel word and one that has seen the citizens of an imperial outpost used as fodder for the enterprises of the self-proclaimed Grand Imperium of the Free World. Whether it be Vietnam through the 1960s to quell a nationalist insurrection, or a range of Cold War deployments to do the same; be it blood soaked Middle East adventurism, the Australian "Ghurkha" will be there, deployable at an instant after a flash consultation.

Even the mild mannered prose of a Parliamentary report assessing ANZUS after 50 years would note the obvious 'disparity in power and influence between the partners'. The authors, Gary Brown and Laura Rayner, admitted that managing that disparity is 'the major issue of the alliance'.

Having stated that sensible point, the authors become fabulists:

'There is no guarantee that without the security that ANZUS has provided Australia would not have developed as an inward looking, less open and more xenophobic society, a sort of apartheid-era South Africa in the South Pacific.''

One dare but dream.

It is plausible that one of the greatest flaws of the Westminster system is its over-reliance on the Crown’s prerogative in deciding when and with whom one buddies up in the next bloody affair. A matter that is bound to take the lives of Australians – and make Australians take the lives of others – is surely a matter of their representatives, those oft confused darlings in Parliament? Senator Nick Xenophon certainly thinks so

But on this score, Australian governments remain mind-shutting in their defiance, refusing to take the temperature of their electorate, while bowing to the broader need of their muscular guardian across the Pacific. 

That refusal to even entertain such consultation, apart from being supremely undemocratic, may well suicidal.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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