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Australia-ROK: Software development

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COMMENTS

17 October 2011 13:28

South Korea and Australia don't muster much soft power, but if they join thoughts they could have some impact on the software of the emerging Asia Pacific system.

That's the thought I offered up last week to the Australia-Korea dialogue held in the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra. This was a one-and-a-half track dialogue — the official first track talking to a few of us 'half trackers'. At the Australia-Korea dinner that night, the Foreign Minister loomed alongside and demanded to know what a hardcore hack such as your Canberra Columnist was doing in such august company.

In answer, I brandished my lapel badge — twinning the Australia and South Korea flags — and announced my half tracker status. 'Ah,' said The Kevin, 'going over to The Dark Side!' With that Star Wars thrust, he glad-handed off towards the next table, as I bleated out something about the Journalistic Force still being strong with me.

It was only much later — ain't it always the way — that the proper response came to me. If Foreign Affairs was the Dark Side, then Kevin Rudd had to be the Emperor, Dennis Richardson would play Darth Vader and a certain Canberra redhead would have to be cast as Princess L.....ah, no, stop!! Deconstructing the Foreign Minister doing levity can take you to strange places, so back to the half track.

The rails for the dialogue to track along were laid down by 2009 Action Plan for Enhanced Global and Security Cooperation between Australia and Korea. When our talks got beyond the hard security issues, some participants on both sides got a bit uncomfortable. Your correspondent helped stir that unease by arguing for a focus beyond the bilateral basics.

The senior diplomats, knowing how hard the bilateral bit can be, weren't keen on new vistas opening up too quickly. My pushback argument was that a new Asia Pacific system or machinery (the concert by another name) is coming into being.

The software perspective is that middle powers like South Korea and Australia can have some impact on the code that runs the machinery — to operationalise or shape the behaviour of the system. In considering what South Korea and Australia can do together, two bits of history offer hope.

Back in 1989, Bob Hawke made his speech launching the idea of APEC in Seoul, and South Korea's immediate embrace of the concept gave it a boost (and galvanised some angry attention from Washington). Then in 2008-9, the two middle powers did a lot of the pushing that helped ensure the G20 knocked off the G7 to become the premier global economic institution.

Widening the bilateral lens, I argued that in trying to scribble new software for the Asia Pacific, the KIA would be an excellent vehicle — Korea, Indonesia and Australia. I gave the KIA model a bit of a drive in a column last year from Jakarta, suggesting this could be one of the many new vehicles in a burgeoning multilateral motorcade, the grand prix events that now include the G20, the East Asia Summit, APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

The common democratic struggles of South Korea and Indonesia produce a strong starting point for such software ruminations. You can't have quite the same dreams about Vietnam, for instance.

Diplomats are careful of dreams. The first trackers on both sides were more interested in getting stronger bilateral supports in place, not least an Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement. But even diplomats have ambitions. The one that leaps out from the 2009 action plan is the idea of two-plus-two talks: Foreign Affairs and Defence Ministers. The concept speaks to the alliance DNA in Canberra which is given yearly expression in the Australia-United States AUSMIN talks.

Australia has only a few other two-plus-two arrangements: with Japan and Britain and last year announced the agreement to create one with Indonesia. Setting up regular joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Minister talks with South Korea would certainly get us to the table with another nation as obsessed with the US alliance as we are. Then the software discussion can really get going.

May The Force be with them.

Photo by Flickr user Riebart.

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