The Obama administration’s “Rebalance 2.0” began in earnest late last year, starting with a major speech by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at Georgetown University, which was followed by Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia. However, issues remain from “Rebalance 1.0.” Among them is messaging, a problem that overcame damage control during the initial rollout two years ago and ensured that phrases like “hardening and resilience,” “dispersed U.S. Forces” and “40:60 total fleet ratio” came to dominate perceptions about the rebalance.
Australia is in need of balancing its own relationships with key partners throughout the region, such as the Republic of Korea (ROK). A relationship also dominated by security and, much like the U.S. rebalance, in need of new messaging. As the U.S. ramps up for its second attempt at mass engagement with the Asia-Pacific, it is in Australia’s strategic interests to work with the U.S. to work out the mechanics of messaging to overcome the costly effects of perceived security-centrism in their respective engagement efforts for the region.
On January 22, The Center for Strategic and International Studies in partnership with the University of Sydney U.S. Studies Centre held a conference titled “U.S.-Australia: The Alliance in an Emerging Asia.” Discussion was dominated by the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, although unfortunately little attention was given to the chance to consider and discuss constructive forms of messaging.
Australia-Korea Relations as Case Study
Following the restart of Australia-ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations, Prime Minister Tony Abbott made clear his seriousness of concluding the agreement by removing a long-standing sticking point, an Investor-State Dispute Settlement Clause. Unfortunately, for a relationship that has almost completely been dominated by security, it is uncertain whether the recent conclusion to negotiations will be monumental, despite this being Australia’s first Free Trade Agreement with an Asian State. Unlike the Australia-Japan relationship, the Australia-ROK relationship is not a relationship built on economics. Although the ROK is Australia’s fourth largest trading partner, the relationship has been largely focused on a narrative of security. This is unsurprising given the circumstances in which Australia’s relations with the ROK began. Among the major contributors to UN forces during the Korean War, Australia’s initial interactions with South Korea was in conflict.
Though a shared history in conflict serves as an important link, it poses key issues. When a relationship is framed almost exclusively along the lines of security, it becomes an all-encompassing focus. Though there may be a desire to create a more comprehensive partnership, this desire for growth is stifled when shared history in conflict is the dominant reference point for strong relations moving forward. In other words, an overemphasis on the security dynamic of the relationship will mean it inevitably overshadows other efforts. This leads to a second issue, a negative perception in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). With security-centrism, there is a potential for growth to be stunted by uncertainty over how the PRC will respond. If security ties continue to dominate the narrative of Australia-ROK relations, it is almost certain to elicit a negative response from the PRC. In turn, as security is the major pillar of the Australia-ROK relationship, the apprehension will bleed over into other areas and slow overall cooperation efforts.
A Way Forward
The U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and the Australia-ROK relationship are faced with a very similar challenge associated with messaging: credibility in convincing actors that stronger and closer interaction does not necessarily mean further securitization. It is in Australia’s interests to work with the U.S. on crafting a less security-focused agenda for several reasons.
First, working together to create a more nuanced message will serve to strengthen the U.S.-Australia alliance. If Australia takes the lead on the issue, it will serve as a major reassurance. Given the fiscally constrained environment, the U.S. places considerable value in partner initiative. Second, moving beyond the alliance, working with the U.S. on messaging is in Australia’s strategic interests. If Australia seeks a more balanced relationship with key partners, efforts on messaging will pay major dividends. Specifically, if Australia can apply lessons from its bilateral consultations with the U.S., it could potentially strengthen its engagement efforts with other states where the context is more challenging, bypassing the costs associated with securitization, particularly in relation to the PRC.
The Australia-ROK FTA can be an important first step. If leveraged effectively, the FTA could be a transformative opportunity for Australia-ROK relations. By placing a new dynamic front and center, it could pave the way for growth towards a more balanced and comprehensive partnership. In turn, by showing success in shifting the narrative away from security, there is opportunity in working with the U.S. to do the same with its rebalance efforts. For one, making Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations – and not the U.S. Pacific Fleet – the tip of the rebalancing spear could prove decisive in guaranteeing a long-term and sustainable U.S. presence in the region; a core Australian interest.
Andrew Kwon is a Master of International Security Graduate from the University of Sydney.