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Cheonan capers

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COMMENTS

17 August 2010 16:09

With the election looming, Australia's focus is mostly inward. But developments in our region point to significant changes – changes which could reshape Australia's future security and prosperity. As Rory Medcalf has pointed out, few of these are as significant as the great power arm-wrestle playing itself out in the South China Sea and the waters around the Korean Peninsula. More than half of Australia's goods exports navigate these sea lanes.

In the first of a new Lowy Institute series on Asian security ('Strategic Snapshots'), Malcolm Cook and I observe that North Korea's unprovoked sinking of the South Korean warship 'Cheonan' and the responses of regional powers will have lasting effects.

China's lame reaction to its ally's misdeed was a major strategic own goal because it simultaneously strengthened not only US defence ties with South Korea and Japan, but also reinforced the quiet growth of security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.

It's not too long ago (albeit under different governments) that South Korea and Japan were at loggerheads over unresolved historical and territorial issues. It is a mark of how much closer they are moving, however, that observers from Japan's Self Defence Force have observed the recent US-ROK anti-submarine exercises held in response to the 'Cheonan' sinking.

Nor is it a coincidence that, in the year marking the 100th anniversary of Japan's colonisation of Korea, both governments are working hard to manage their troubled past. Under new Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the Japanese Government recently issued a formal statement apologising for Japan's subjugation of Korea. And ROK President Lee Myung Bak's speech on Korean National Day – which celebrates liberation from Japan – was constructive and forward looking, calling on both countries to transcend the past and forge a new relationship.

A recent interaction I had with the Chinese media highlights the acute sensitivity inside the Middle Kingdom regarding Beijing's trouble-prone alliance with Pyongyang.

I was approached by email for an interview by the 'Shanghai Oriental Morning Post', a relatively new Chinese-language newspaper targeting southern China's growing business and financial audience. The Post reproduced most of my answers (see image above), but with some telling editorial licence.

Gone was my factual reference to the US-ROK exercises taking place 'in international waters off Korea'. Gone too was my judgment – supported by US Government statements – that a major aim of the exercises was to deter North Korea from further acts of aggression against South Korea or other regional countries. My phrase 'Cheonan sinking' became Cheonan 'incident'. And, tellingly, this answer to a question about China's security dilemmas was left out entirely:

China’s main security dilemma is the continuing reckless and provocative behaviour of its ally, North Korea...The planned US-ROK naval exercises would not be happening if not for North Korea’s aggressive actions. The best way for China to resolve its security dilemma is to rein in its ally before North Korea further destabilises the region. As an initial step Beijing should accept the findings of the international study into the Cheonan sinking and join the international condemnation of North Korea’s attack. China should also resume full military-military dialogue with the United States, provide more transparency about the longer-term strategic assessments and objectives supporting its military modernisation, and agree to put in place as a matter of urgency an incidents-at-sea agreement to minimise the risk that an accident at sea could lead to miscalculation or even conflict.

Maybe they just ran out of space. But somehow I think there is more to it than that. This was clearly a bit too much to swallow, even for one of China's newer and more outward-looking media outlets.