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Challenges for the Australia-South Korea Middle Power Partnership

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Challenges for the Australia-South Korea Middle Power Partnership

Given their shared values, close economic links, and convergent strategic interests, South Korea and Australia would do well to establish a deeper and more strategic partnership.

Challenges for the Australia-South Korea Middle Power Partnership

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison witness a signing ceremony at Parliament House, in Canberra, Australia, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021.

Credit: Lukas Coch/Pool Photo via AP

The official visit to Australia by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in this week comes at a critical moment. The two middle powers see growing needs and opportunities to deepen ties given strategic imperatives and challenges they both face given the current geopolitical shifts of the Indo-Pacific. In fact, Moon and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison agreed at the G-7 Plus Summit in Cornwall last June to elevate the bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in celebration of the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. In particular, at another meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last September, the two leaders outlined ambitious plans for a “reinvigorated collaboration” across a wide range of key issues including trade, investment, infrastructure, industry, defense and arms development, and a renewed focus on expanded cooperation in the renewable energy sector, including the use of hydrogen.

Despite the relative distance between Canberra and Seoul geographically, Australia and South Korea share common ground through their shared democratic values and their convergent strategic interests in promoting an international order based on free trade, multilateralism, and the rule of law. Both countries are also closely intertwined via comprehensive trade and investment links based on a high degree of economic complementarity. South Korea is Australia’s fourth largest trading partner, a growing source of foreign investment, and an important provider of manufactured goods, such as electronics, machinery, and capital goods. Likewise, Australia’s major exports to South Korea, such as energy, raw materials, and food products, are increasingly critical to the Korean economy.

On the diplomatic front, Seoul and Canberra have been closely engaged bilaterally, as well as in regional and multilateral forums, such as the East Asia Summits (EAS), APEC, G-20, OECD, United Nations, and most recently, the G-7 Plus meetings. As treaty allies of the United States, both have vested interests in keeping the strategic stability of the international rules-based order. Like Australia, South Korea is also concerned about potential disruptions to trade and energy supply routes and the erosion of international maritime laws and norms.

As open, trading nations, both South Korea and Australia face growing pressures to mitigate the geoeconomic risks and challenges associated with their dependence on foreign trade. For example, their heavy economic dependence on China have exposed both South Korea and Australia to China’s targeted economic coercion. In response, the Moon and Morrison governments decided to pursue an economic diversification strategy that aims to reduce their external economic risks from China. In this respect, each country stands out as an ideal partner to the other in their shared pursuit of economic diversification. Canberra and Seoul are also in a position to explore greater opportunities on the new frontiers of bilateral cooperation, i.e., low emission technologies (hydrogen and clean steel), cyber and critical technologies, climate change, and resilient supply chains, among other things.

Given their shared values, close economic links, and convergent strategic interests, South Korea and Australia should do well to partner with each other at a much deeper strategic level. However, as noted by Kyle Springer of the Perth USAsia Centre, “while the two countries collaborate effectively as peers, they have yet to elevate their diplomatic interactions to advance shared interests in bilateral, regional and global fora.” Some Australian scholars have pointed out that the key challenge is Seoul’s reluctance to engage on issues of regional peace and security. From this perspective, the South Koean government’s lack of “strategic vision” confines its strategic priorities to the Korean Peninsula. Also, Seoul’s narrow strategic framework discourages it from taking a part in shaping regional peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.

These perspectives offer useful insights into understanding Seoul’s constrained strategic ambition and its untapped potential in the Indo-Pacific. However, in order to decipher the deep-seated motivations behind Seoul’s regional security roles, or lack thereof, it is necessary to have a deeper understanding of the complexities and sensitivities in South Korea’s own strategic perceptions and priorities. Koreans differ from Australians in the strategic lens through which they view the surrounding environments and accordingly prioritize their responses. For example, to Australians, the most pressing issue at hand is how to stand firm against and deter China’s aggressive and increasingly disruptive behaviors that threaten the existing rules-based order. In contrast, the prevailing perception in Seoul is that South Korea has fallen into a new “geopolitical ditch” of being caught in the crossfire between the two great powers. The most pressing challenge for Seoul, therefore, is how to manage its relations with, and secure a degree of autonomy from, both Washington and Beijing.

However, it is important to note that Seoul’s strategic considerations are not fixated on maintaining a balance between Washington and Beijing. Rather, Seoul’s strategic stance is evolving, reflecting its changing perceptions as well as shifts in the strategic situation. For example, at the South Korea-U.S. summit held last May, Moon and President Joe Biden agreed on deepening and expanding bilateral cooperation based on the United States’ Indo-Pacific initiative. In particular, the two countries agreed to expand the geographical scope, role, and agenda of the ROK-U.S. alliance to regional and global levels. They also agreed to work together “to align the ROK’s New Southern Policy and the United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific” to create “a safe, prosperous, and dynamic region.” Given its passive positions in the past, the Moon administration has now become much more proactive and engaged in support of the U.S. Indo-Pacific initiative.

A similarly positive momentum should be created on the frontiers of Australia-South Korea collaboration as well. In order to advance their partnership in the future, both Seoul and Canberra need to address some remaining gaps and inconsistencies in how they consider each other as priority partners. From the South Korean perspective, Moon’s top foreign policy priority is set on dealing with North Korea and managing relations with the U.S. and China. His foremost focus has been on forging a durable detente with North Korea and making efforts to discourage Kim Jong Un from pursuing nuclear ambitions. Consequently, Moon’s diplomatic attention and resources have been primarily devoted to managing inter-Korean relations and maintaining support from Washington and Beijing. In this respect, Australia has not been given the attention it deserves in South Korea’s diplomatic priorities. In addition, Australia is currently left out of the scope of Seoul’s regional initiative, the New Southern Policy, which focuses on only Southeast Asia and India. Seoul needs to fix this problem soon.

From the Australian side, it is true that Canberra has consistently identified Seoul as one of the key partners in its Indo-Pacific outlook in recent years. However, South Korea has not always been accorded Canberra’s sustained attention in its overall foreign policy and strategic considerations. In fact, compared to the diplomatic attention and strategic priorities that Canberra has afforded the Quad and its members, the U.S., Japan and India, and now AUKUS, as well as its closest neighbor, Indonesia, Australia’s diplomatic overtures toward South Korea over the years have been at most sporadic. Given Canberra’s keen strategic interests to draw Seoul’s strategic gaze to the south, it needs to maintain consistency and sustained attention in its approach toward South Korea and make strenuous efforts to engage Seoul as a “comprehensive strategic partner” in the future.

This article is a revised and abridged version of the author’s earlier commentary, which appeared on the website of the Asia Society Australia