Fatty Kim III. Trust the Chinese to come up with an amusing nickname for Kim Jong-Un. This bizarre figure will soon feature in a meeting which will, indirectly, decide the security of Australia for perhaps the next century. Of all places, the meeting will take place in Hanoi, once the seat of another great threat to the security of Asia, and hence to Australia. On 27 February, President Donald Trump will, for the second time, sit down and talk terms with Fat Boy Kim, Asia’s most volatile and dangerous national leader.
Why is this meeting so momentous? Because it may reveal the decision of the American people – speaking to the world through their president – to effect a radical change in how the security of Asia is configured: chiefly the relationship between the two biggest players, China and Japan. The tectonic plates of coexistence and conflict between these two powers will, if they shift, shake us all violently.
North Korea is a small, poverty-stricken state armed with weapons of mass destruction; nukes, chemicals, bio-weapons, along with surprisingly potent missiles. It’s a troublesome client state of China and Russia capable of inflicting catastrophic damage on Japan and South Korea.
Its rise to the status of a serious threat to America has led to some hard questions being asked in Washington DC about America’s role in maintaining the peace in Asia. Australia, watch this carefully.
But it’s the larger context that really matters, not merely Kim and his gangster regime. Trump has taken on China’s misbehaviour in trade and technology admirably. To some extent, he’s also confronted China’s misdeeds in the East and South China Seas, and its overt threats to democratic, peaceful Taiwan. All this is long overdue and of great comfort to Australia.
That said, everyone knows – but rarely acknowledges in public – that the American people are weary of being Asia’s cop on the beat. Paying most of the costs of this role – in money and in human effort – has its limits. Japan and South Korea are both wealthy countries and enjoy the safety of American protection. The hard, uncomfortable question to ask is, how much longer will this last?
Japan is struggling to handle its rapidly ageing and diminishing population. The further the Pacific War recedes into history, the more its security debate is calling for a return to normality: this means ending the outdated constitutional restrictions on its military forces. Many Japanese, both senior and ordinary people, deeply resent this restraint on their own security. In the face of China’s aggression, Japan is quickly upgrading its naval and air strength. But there’s a palpable sense that America may significantly lessen its security role in Asia. That would force Japan to do the unthinkable: match China’s military strength with its own. A Japan with nuclear weapons?
Once upon a time, it was impossible to imagine the world without the Soviet Union. Look what happened to that particular certainty.
Like Japan, South Korea is experiencing a surge of nationalism, manifest mostly in Japan-bashing. Relations between the two countries have never been worse. In November last year, a South Korean naval destroyer lit up a Japanese naval patrol aircraft with a missile-targeting radar beam. Remember, these two countries are democracies, not rogue states. Cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul to counter the multifarious threats of China-DPRK-Russia are non-existent.
So back to Trump and Fatty Kim III. In Japan, the barely-uttered fear is that the two leaders will agree to a peace deal in which Kim agrees to do away with his ICBMs, thus sparing America from direct attack. That gives Trump grounds for saying to his people, “Look, I have eliminated the threat to us.”
Further, and in return, Trump will agree to withdraw the US military from South Korea. To President Moon Jae-In he says, “Pal, you’re on your own with your buddy to the north. Good luck.”
To the American people, he says, “Now we’re out of this fight between the Koreas. Let them sort it out. What’ve they ever done for us?”
Such a deal may not happen instantly, but the trend in American opinion is clear, and Trump, for all his faults, reflects this strand of opinion with confronting clarity. Commentators such as Pat Buchanan – and some on the left – have long been asking, where is America’s manifest destiny in Asia? After nearly two decades of a terrible slog in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Syria, it’s hardly a surprise that Americans are questioning their burden of being the global policeman.
Under Moon Jae-In South Korea seems temporarily lost in a dream-like state, imagining that the gangsters to the north have suddenly discovered the virtues of goodwill and non-aggression. In essence Moon’s policy seems to be, “You promise not to kill us, and we’ll pay you heaps for the trouble you’re going to.” If only Hitler and Stalin had been so lucky.
Japan is more serious about its security, having a huge territory to defend from both Russia and China. Tokyo has woken up. The new reality is that you can’t take for granted the enormous commitment of American personnel, weapons, and budget funds in north Asia.
And Australia? The bridge between China and the US? Hardly. The next few decades will be very expensive and increasingly tense. Are we up to defending ourselves?
Andrew Thomson is a former Liberal Member for Wentworth.
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