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Let’s talk about Darwin: Australia, South Korea, and US basing

South Korea has persisted with US basing despite decades of fluctuating public opinion and dark periods in the bilateral relationship.

US troops arrive in Darwin, 2016 (Photo: Flickr/Department of Defense)
US troops arrive in Darwin, 2016 (Photo: Flickr/Department of Defense)

Last week the Lowy Institute's International Security Program, supported by the Korea Foundation, hosted the Australia-Republic of Korea (ROK) Emerging Leaders International Security Forum in Sydney and Canberra, bringing together scholars and future policymakers focused on the bilateral security relationship. This is the fifth in a series of posts from Forum participants.

To some, it might come as news that there were some recent bumps in the US-Australia defence relationship. In July last year Washington and Canberra were unable to agree on who would foot an estimated $20 million bill as part of $2 billion in facility upgrades in the Northern Territory to cope with an eventual planned peak deployment of 2500 US Marines and material.

While an agreement was eventually reached, could this have all been avoided? Simply, no. The art of hosting US forces is unfamiliar to Australia; challenges were inevitable. But Australia could have been better prepared for that steep learning curve. Australia enjoys close relations with countries such as South Korea with long experience in the tricky elements of US alliance management. It should take advantage of their experience.

It would be an understatement to say South Korea knows about US basing. As it stands, South Korea hosts 28,500 US service personnel and contributes US$821 million towards cost-sharing. Numbers aside, South Korea has persisted with US basing despite decades of fluctuating public opinion and dark periods in the bilateral relationship. For Australian defence and foreign policy officials, looking to South Korean counterparts to understand the complexity that comes with being a host state and its impact on overall alliance management would go far in keeping discussions with US counterparts grounded, productive and even-tempered.

But there are other reasons as well. For Australia, it would mark a much needed change in its conduct with South Korea. Traditionally, Australia has tried to deepen ties with South Korea by being proactive; the most recent Australia-ROK 2+2 joint statement shows agreement to cooperate on a wide range of issues, from transnational law enforcement to maritime security. The South Korean response to the enthusiasm has been politeness and acceptance, but it masks a growing weariness. As recently described by a former Australian senior diplomat, it is borne from 'initiative burnout'. Instead of constantly trying to prove its value so broadly, Australia could find initially narrowing the focus could improve receptivity and, in the long term, encourage openness.

Above all else, however, need must meet feasibility, and 2017 is already shaping up to be a politically challenging year for both countries. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull began the year by confronting a scandal involving a senior minister, and has since lost a senator to the crossbench. In Seoul, Prime Minister and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn is bound by a limited mandate. Given the circumstances, it would be better to focus on what can be achieved within established frameworks from past agreements and forums, such as the Australia-South Korea 2+2 dialogue.

During the Obama administration, there was a need for US allies to come together and work to future-proof US regional commitment; under a Trump presidency, it is an indisputable requirement. We should not forget that the US President has long questioned the utility of alliances (and specifically the US-ROK alliance). It is in Australia’s interests to deepen its relationship with South Korea, as both fellow middle powers and mutual US allies, and work together to keep the US both honest and aware that remaining committed and present in the Indo-Pacific is also in its national interest.

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