Donald Trump’s increasingly bellicose threats against North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un are raising fears of all-out war. But if the worst happens, which way will New Zealand jump? Victoria University professor Robert Ayson considers the options.
Many of us are thinking, or at least hoping, that Donald Trump is bluffing when he implies that violence is the only way to deal with North Korea. Oddly enough, his ‘only one thing that will work’ argument can be seen as a form of diplomacy. In this interpretation, Trump is telling Kim Jong-Un to stop testing missiles and nuclear weapons, and start disarmament negotiations, or else! Coupled with increasingly stringent economic sanctions, Trump’s explosive rhetoric becomes the riskiest part of a broader campaign of pressure against North Korea. In which case we can sleep relatively calmly.
But what if Trump’s words are more than a threat of something he doesn’t really intend to do? Perhaps he is genuinely trying to tell North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, his supporters, and the rest of us, that his patience with non-violent measures really has come to an end. What if he is about to resort to force?
This might involve more than an effort to intercept the flight of the next North Korean missile. If he really wishes to put a dent in Pyongyang’s coercive options, Mr Trump might authorise American cruise missiles and stealth bombers to attack North Korean military targets.
But what Trump may envision as a quick knock-out blow could easily escalate if Kim uses some of his remaining military capabilities while he still has them. Immediately at risk would be South Korea’s capital. Japan and Guam could also be targeted. And we should not forget these are all places where the United States has personnel and military facilities.
Further escalation could force Beijing’s hand, especially if Xi Jinping believes China’s security is at stake if North Korea collapses. That would have the region’s two great powers at war with each other. That might not be the World War Three that Senator Bob Corker has been warning us about. But it doesn’t need to be total war to be immensely damaging.
If Trump has shut out Rex Tillerson and only has ears for his defense secretary Jim Mattis, he will still have been told of the dangers of launching an attack on North Korean forces. If the president ignores these concerns, the humanitarian toll in North Asia could be dreadful, even if the use of nuclear weapons is somehow avoided. The economic costs, including to some of New Zealand’s main trading partners, could be pervasive. Asia Pacific’s political equilibrium, which our diplomats have come to rely on, may have been broken.
New Zealand’s preferences on North Korea are for almost any option but the violent use of force. But Wellington could find that Asia’s most worrying armed conflict in at least two generations had been initiated by a very close military partner. And the warmth and intensity of the US-NZ bilateral security relationship is not something to be sniffed at. In July, for example, one of New Zealand’s two frigates joined a US aircraft carrier battle group, the symbol of the 7th Fleet’s maritime superiority in Asia.
The growth in these security ties has been a bipartisan priority in both countries. The initial improvement, made possible by New Zealand’s post-9/11 commitments in Afghanistan, came when Helen Clark and George W. Bush were in power. Things later accelerated under John Key and Barack Obama with the Wellington and Washington Declarations.
As the relationship flourished New Zealand presented itself as a ‘stalwart’ partner of the United States. And as regional concerns grew about China’s approach in the South China and East China Seas, Wellington found even more reasons to encourage the reassuring US presence in Asia.
But Trump could change all of that. If he makes a really bad decision on North Korea, and especially if any resulting escalation cannot be controlled, America may have been transformed from the deterrer of war in Asia to its creator.
New Zealand has already voiced its unease at Trump’s approach. When the president threatened North Korea with ‘fire and fury’, Bill English caught international attention by saying that these comments were ‘not helpful’. This allowed him to distance New Zealand from Trump without ruining the wider relationship with Washington. But if fire and fury become fact, something more comprehensive could be in order.
Some of New Zealand’s wider regional partners, including in Southeast Asia, would be having second thoughts about their own links with Washington. But for New Zealand’s number one ally, this would be an especially difficult time. The ANZUS alliance is the cornerstone of Australia’s security policy and no prime minister in Canberra wants to lose that precious relationship. There might be a gap between Australian and New Zealand responses if North Korea attacks the United States. That could become a chasm if the roles are reversed.
That might be reason enough to stop Wellington from suggesting that Trump will put NZ-US links at risk if he initiates hostilities against North Korea. Another problem is that the US Commander in Chief is unlikely to be in listening mode, especially to smaller countries whose views he is not inclined to value. And if Trump doesn’t act as expected, New Zealand may have done unnecessary harm to at least one of its big relationships.
But if New Zealand’s decision-makers believe that the chances of Trump taking this hazardous step are seriously rising, they need to consider what a postwar Asia could look like. America’s credentials may have suffered a mortal blow. Its relationships with allies and adversaries may be in disarray. In such a difficult environment, New Zealand’s reputation for principled foreign policy could matter even more than it does now.
So if New Zealand’s next prime minister concludes that a preventive American military strike on North Korean facilities is imminent, he or she might contemplate some pre-emptive diplomacy to signal what that unwelcome development might mean for the future of New Zealand-US relations. Unless, of course, Donald Trump acts before Winston Peters chooses.
Robert Ayson is professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.