DENNIS ARGALL. Trump-Kim, Korea, China and the future.

Jun 13, 2018

The underpinnings of Australian strategic utterances are slipping away.

There will be, it is the way the world is, a flood of “yeah, but…” comment on the Trump-Kim Singapore summit. Not least because the number of experts on Korean affairs has risen multifold in the past several months much as did the number of experts on China in the then Department of Foreign Affairs go through the roof after Whitlam and Kissinger visited China in 1971. The DPRK now and the PRC then deserve comparison, both as to their political, social and economic affairs and their prospects — but that is another subject.  

There is put-down: Benjamin Habib writing in The Conversation on 13 June 2018 says “the repatriation of POW/MIA remains a relatively easy confidence-building measure…” which is breathtakingly naïve given history, the practical complexity and political significance. Compare normalisation of US relations with Vietnam. Think for a moment about the impact on Trump supporters; think for a moment with a little compassion.

The most important comparison to be made with Singapore is Reykjavik 1986, when Reagan and Gorbachev pushed their advisers out of the room and succeeded in shifting debate towards general disarmament… if only for a moment. “Yeah, but” resumed control fairly quickly. Their summit was on 11-12 October 1986. On 12 October, Robert McNamara published a book with concern about Reagan called Blundering into Disaster which spoke of the importance of avoiding impulsiveness. Reagan-Gorbachev and Trump-Kim demonstrate the necessity of breaking crockery to change the international order. On my observation, breaking crockery includes creating some loose ends.

Getting into the shortcomings is what is likely to cause failure of any marriage counselling first step if there is a prompt reversion to nagging, suspicion and old routines. There is a need to “give peace a chance”.

Australian strategic policy foundation truths are at risk from change in US posture. There is in the outcome of this summit a potential for significant shift in US posture in the north Pacific. Yes, a potential, not a certainty. But certainly a necessity if peace is to have a chance.

While John Menadue has recently sketched the order of US economic confrontations in the Pacific, the core of US regional strategy has remained military since World War II and especially since the onset of the Korean War in June 1950, combining in Washington with the “loss of China” as the success of the Chinese Communist Party in the revolution and the retreat of the government of the Republic of China to Taiwan were described in the US. Feeding the descent into McCarthyism in the US, comparable to what seems nascent in the Australian parliament and government now, with the dominance of the China-hostile there and in the media.

Nowhere has US strategic posture been more rigid than in relation to Korea. Nowhere is the dominance of US strategic policy by armed forces posture and presentiment more forceful than in relation to Korea. Any shift in that will involve shift in posture towards China.

It is my view that the changes in domestic politics and social and economic policy of South Korea in the past year, under the Moon Administration, are major elements in Kim feeling able to take the path he has. The Panmunjom declaration contains much of what needs to be able to proceed from here. North-South dealings are not a sideshow.

It is said that sanctions remain in place, but Air China has resumed flights to Pyongyang and that is surely not just a flag carrier.

While the events in Canada have unfolded, China has been rejoicing in the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao, China, a meeting of government leaders of half the planet’s population — including India and Pakistan, members since 2017, at the same table.

Rail connections between China and Europe proliferate: so far 35 Chinese cities and 34 European cities connected, in what Jonathan Hillman of the definitely-not-radical Centre for Strategic and International Studies suggests may be the “dawn of a New Commercial Era.”

Not only are Volvos and Range Rovers arriving now by train from China, but supermarkets in the west of China, places which have had less benefit from China’s modernisation thus far, are now supplied with goods from Europe, including fresh produce, by train. This is of course, a declared intention of the One Belt, One Road initiative of China, so disparaged by conservative commentators as an ideological posture and economic grab, burdening many countries with inappropriate infrastructure. One need only dig out the IMF Report on the ROK in 1979, arguing that this little country should not be building a car industry, to understand the systemic failure of forecasting about capacities of developing countries. (I note in parenthesis that the Chinese company Volvo is ahead of the pack in having announced that it will produce no fossil fuel powered vehicles beyond 2020.)

The details of the Panmunjom document include economic development and in particular a rail link between north and south. In 7 June, the ROK, with the approval of the DPRK, became a member of the Organization for Cooperation on Railways. “Its admission means the way is now open for it to take part in operating a “continental railroad” line.”

I note the oral agreement after Panmunjom between ROK President Moon and Russian President Putin on the importance of trilateral cooperation with the DPRK.

Our own Australian strategic perspective and national debate have slipped back into Cold War or McCarthyist manners at a time when there is need for much more sophisticated thinking and sensible behaviour.

Dennis Argall has been an observer of north Asian affairs since 1970 and was formerly Counsellor in the embassy in Washington and ambassador in Beijing.

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