Australia-ROK relations: Meeting in the middle
The International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, with the generous support of the Korea Foundation, hosted the Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum in early February 2017. The Forum was an intensive three days of roundtable discussions in Sydney and Canberra that developed people-to-people links between scholars and future policymakers from Australia and South Korea to develop the bilateral security relationship.
The Forum was underpinned by considerable common ground and highlighted good reasons why Australia should continue to preserve and develop robust bilateral relations with the ROK, including:
1. Both are US allies with an uncompromising commitment to values such as democracy and free and open trade.
2. A common stake in the peace, prosperity and security in the region. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and stability on the Korean Peninsula are critical to the economic performance and security of both countries.
3. Mutual status as regional middle powers. This provides a basis upon which both countries can influence the region outside of the US-China framework (for example through MIKTA).
4. The bilateral free trade agreement (KAFTA). According to DFAT, bilateral trade is worth $36 billion (2014-15), making Korea Australia’s fourth largest overall trading partner.
Taking place at the beginning of a year in which the US ‘hub-and -poke’ alliance model faces uncertainty under the new Trump administration, and as Chinese power in the region is rising, the Forum was a welcome opportunity for frank and candid (and at times extremely animated) discussion on the prospects for US allies inside and outside the US-China framework. There is no doubt that Australia and South Korea share concerns regarding US commitment to the region. Trump’s unconventional style has unsettled allies, who have been left unsure about the dynamics of the US-led global alliance system going forward and skeptical about the US role in the region’s future. Co-operation between likeminded US allies such as Australia and the ROK would boost regional stability, having both a stabilising effect on US policy and affirming the importance of multipolarity in the region.
Australia and the ROK are also facing a common challenge: managing rising Chinese power in the region. China has become more assertive, particularly in the South China Sea, and as a result has been perceived as a growing security threat in the region. Despite China’s outright objection to deepened security cooperation between the US and its allies (such as the THAAD missile defense system in the ROK), China’s assertiveness makes security cooperation amongst US allies even more important. But both Australia and South Korea must balance their need for security and political ties with the US with their reliant trade relationships on China, which is both Australia and Korea’s largest export market. Any policy for Australia-ROK security cooperation must delicately balance two great powers.
Separately and together, these all emerged as good reasons to continue strengthening and furthering cooperation between Australia and the ROK. Due to these sensitives and the need to balance two great powers, discussion often boiled down to the need to strengthen the three pillars which underpin the Australia-ROK bilateral relationship, as a prerequisite to deepened security cooperation in the future:
1. The 2016 Lowy Poll found that only 4% of Australians consider South Korea to be Australia’s ‘best friend in Asia’, ranking behind India, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and China. This suggests a need for increased efforts dedicated to public diplomacy, to improve perceptions of the ROK in Australia. The same is true for improving perceptions of Australia in ROK. Increasing people-to-people exchanges would have the effect of deepening the intellectual infrastructure for Australia-ROK bilateral relationship for the future.
2. Ensure that MIKTA remains a relevant and worthy platform for middle-power cooperation, beyond changes in leadership, and one which works towards tangible outcomes.
3. Working to sustain and increase trade volumes between Australia and the ROK, as this forms an important pillar for cooperation between the two countries.
The ways in which Australia and the ROK could deepen security cooperation came into contention, particularly on issues such as US basing and deployments. However, forging robust pillars for cooperation make a good starting point for these two middle powers to play a developmental role in working together to stabilise regional security. Not only will taking these steps strengthen the bilateral relationship, but it will send the message to the wider region that Australia and the ROK are responsible middle powers committed to gradually, reliably and consistently upholding their shared values, and strengthening and maintaining the foundations of their friendship. At the end of the Forum, I was left with a cautiously optimistic feeling that although there is work to be done, the existing foundations of the relationship are solid and the current security environment can be viewed as a period of opportunity for Australia and the ROK.