Australia-Korea – Going Forward, Looking Backward
Image Credit: mariosp via Flickr

Australia-Korea – Going Forward, Looking Backward


On July 4, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, are scheduled to visit Seoul to meet Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-Se and Minister for National Defense Kim Kwan-Jin, for the inaugural Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue.  

As the first country outside the U.S. to establish an annual 2+2 ministerial-level dialogue with South Korea, the Australian Government has promoted the talks as evidence that the Australia-Korea bilateral relationship is going forward.

In fact, the relationship has always been a victim of its own success. The two countries share a highly complementary trade relationship, are close allies of the United States, and are familiar partners in regional forums. The only challenge policymakers face is making the relationship more relevant. The oft repeated clichés still apply.

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To South Koreans, Australia is still a beach, a mine and great place to study, but little more. To Australians, South Korea is  remembered as a distant battlefield, caricatured as a source of parliamentary scuffles, and sensationalized as a bizarre remnant of the Cold War. Bilateral efforts to celebrate fifty years of diplomatic relations in 2011 with the Australia-Korea Year of Friendship fizzled unconvincingly with Australian interest in South Korea peaking a year too late, and only then as a result of the global internet pop-sensation of Psy’s Gangnam Style.

Australia has consistently sought to bring more relevance to bilateral ties. The Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue is an important component of this approach. Annual ministerial-level 2+2 talks are an important dialogue format. They both recognize the importance accorded to a bilateral relationship and serve as a platform to improve strategic policy coordination. 

The 2+2 dialogue format was traditionally reserved for longstanding strategic partnerships. Australian foreign and defence ministers, as well as senior departmental officials, have met their U.S. counterparts at the annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) since 1985. Australia formalized similar level talks with the United Kingdom (AUKMIN) in 2008, and has held biennial talks with Singapore under the auspices of the Singapore Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC), since 1996. 

In more recent examples Australia has not necessarily used the format to formalize longstanding strategic partnerships, but rather to strengthen and widen bilateral relationships in which strategic cooperation has not been prominent. Thus, in September 2012, Australia and Japan held their fourth Australia-Japan 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministers' Meeting; in April 2013, Australia and Indonesia held the second Australia-Indonesia Annual 2+2 Dialogue, and now on July 4, Australia and Korea will meet for their inaugural 2+2 dialogue. Australian policymakers hope the 2+2 dialogue format will strengthen and widen the Australia-Korea relationship. 

However, the establishment of the Australia-Korea 2+2 Dialogue fits into an alarming trend in Australian discourse on the Australia-Korea bilateral relationship – a trend that some see as increasingly backward-looking and dominated by security. 

This trend is demonstrated by Australia’s recent diplomatic interaction with Korea. In April 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited South Korea. The visit coincided with ANZAC Day in Australia, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand commemorating those who served and died in conflict. Julia Gillard’s visit to Seoul included a visit to Kapyong, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of a major battle of the Korean War, in which 32 Australians died.

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