Issue 6 | Shangri-La Dialogue
By Gordon Flake from Perth USAsia Centre | 15 Jun 2017
Like many observers in the region, I was very much impressed by the keynote address given by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 2 June at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Media coverage described the address as “blunt” and largely focussed on the Prime Minister’s perceived challenge to China with warnings against a “dark view “of a future in a region characterized by “coercion.” Indeed there was clarity in Prime Minster Turnbull’s advocacy for a more positive vision of a region where “the rights of small states are untrammelled,” “big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small,” “the strong have not done what they will without consequences,” “might is not right” and “nations can pursue their destinies free of coercion or interference.” There was also little ambiguity in his criticism of “unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarise disputed areas.”
On a deeper level, however, the message and focus of the speech was far broader than the ongoing tensions in the South China Seas. The speech made reference to “rules” or a “rules-based order” no fewer than 11 times. Australia’s vocal defence of multilateralism, liberal economic values, the rule of law, and ASEAN’s integration agenda underline its approach to almost every issue on the agenda earlier this month in Singapore. The myriad challenges posed by North Korea are a case in point.
In April the North Korean official news agency KNCA accused Australia of “blindly and zealously toeing the US line” and threatened a nuclear strike on Australia. The DPRK is likely not alone in assuming that Australia’s vocal criticism of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are primarily carrying water for the United States. Such views, however, ignore Australia’s direct involvement on the Peninsula since the Korean War as well as Australia’s direct interest in the stability of an immediate region that includes its top three export destinations. A full understanding of Australian leadership in responding to North Korea’s threats must, however, include an understanding of Australia’s advocacy of a “rules-based order” as articulated by Prime Minister Turnbull. North Korea’s actions on many fronts are a direct threat to the rules, standards and norms which have so benefited the region for the past six decades. Not only has the United Nations Security Council adopted five major resolutions since 2006 that impose and strengthen sanctions on North Korea in response to its missile and nuclear program, but North Korea remains the only country to have withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT.) Australia is a signatory of the NPT, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and a suite of other international agreements including an informal arrangement called “The Australia Group” focussed on chemical and biological weapons. Australia has carved out an important role in the international community as a nation which, despite possessing the most advanced scientific, technical and economic capacity, has in large part sought to augment its own security and that of the region by strengthening international agreements, standards and norms.
For 25 years in Washington DC, I viewed issues related to North Korea primarily through the prism of the Korean Peninsula and the United States’ alliance with the Republic of Korea. Three and a half years in Perth have shaped my understanding of the broader regional and global implications of North Korea’s actions. As such, North Korea’s stated determination to develop an ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile), its nuclear program, the apparent assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia earlier this year using a banned nerve agent, and the horrific treatment of an American college student released this week from North Korea in a coma are not simply issues for the United States. They are direct challenges to the vision of a region so clearly reinforced by Prime Minister Turnbull in recent weeks.
Gordon Flake is the CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre
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