Australia and Korea: middle powers in uncharted waters

Despite the relative distance between Canberra and Seoul geographically, Australia and the Republic of Korea (ROK) share common ground through their mutual fundamental democratic values and their convergent strategic interests in promoting an international order based on free trade, multilateralism, and rule of law. Both countries are also closely intertwined via comprehensive trade and investment links based on a high degree of economic complementarities: 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 Korea, such as energy, raw materials, and food products, are increasingly critical to the Korean economy. Australia is also a popular international study destination for many young Korean students, owing to the high quality of Australia’s education system.

Ties That Bind Together

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, G20, OECD, UN and most recently, G7 Plus meetings. In fact, the close ties that bind the two countries date back seventy years when some 18,000 Australians fought on the Korean Peninsula to defend the freedom of an impoverished people and provide protection from the aggression of North Korea. While often forgotten in Australia, the sacrifices and contributions made by Australians for a country, with which it did not have diplomatic relations at the time of engagement, are well remembered and widely cherished in Korea today. In this sense, Australia played no small part in the international efforts that have helped to lay the foundations of contemporary Korea. A prime example of an East Asian success story, South Korea is now both a vibrant democracy and a modern economic powerhouse with increasing soft power and cultural influence on the global stage.

Toward a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership

Considering the multifaceted ties between Seoul and Canberra, it comes as no surprise that President Moon and Prime Minister Morrison agreed at the G7 Plus Summit in Cornwall last June to elevate the bilateral relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in celebration of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations. In particular, at another meeting on the sidelines of the UN 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. This will add fresh momentum to the advance of bilateral relations in the years ahead.

The decision to upgrade the relationship also reflects the growing needs and increasing opportunities that Seoul and Canberra find in their mutual relations, as well as the strategic imperatives and challenges they both face given the current geopolitical shifts of the Indo-Pacific. As open, trading nations, both 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 exposed both Korea and Australia to China’s targeted measures of 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.

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Korea is arguably one of the biggest beneficiaries of the free trade system established after World War II. As such, it has a strong case to uphold free trade, both at the regional and global level that has been seriously weakened in recent years. Seoul needs to work more closely with Canberra in two key regional trade agreements i.e., RCEP and CPTPP. While Australia is one of the key members of both RCEP and CPTPP, Korea participates in only RCEP and is currently bidding to join CPTPP. Given Seoul’s extensive trade ties with most member countries, Korea is an ideal candidate to join CPTPP, and Australia can play a role in the accession process by collaborating with Korea. As well-documented by the recent “2+2 dialogue,” Canberra and Seoul should also explore greater opportunities in 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 others.

As both the ROK and Australian defense and foreign ministers noted at the “2+2 dialogue”, it is imperative for the two like-minded partners to engage in a higher level of strategic and defense coordination to deal with “existing and evolving security threats in a strategic environment with increasing uncertainties.” As treaty allies of the US, both have invested interests in keeping the strategic stability of the international rules-based order. In addition, both share concern over the stability of the Indo-Pacific in light of an increasingly assertive China and the US’s declining relative military position in the region. Like Australia, Korea is concerned about potential disruptions to trade and energy supply routes and the erosion of international maritime laws and norms.

Sharing and Aligning Deeper Strategic Perceptions

Given their shared values, close economic links, and convergent strategic interests, Korea and Australia should do well to partner with each other at a much deeper strategic level. However, as noted by Kyle Springer, “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 with keen interests in advancing bilateral security ties between Seoul and Canberra have pointed out that the key challenge is Seoul’s reluctance to engage on issues of regional peace and security. From this perspective, Seoul’s lack of ‘strategic vision’ confines its strategic priorities within 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.

For example, Bill Paterson, former Australian Ambassador to ROK, argues that “the imperative Korea feels to be seen to balance between China and the US” is the key factor behind President Moon’s reluctance [toward the Quad] that can “minimize the importance of its other regional interests.” In a similar vein, Peter Lee argues that “Koreans have tended to see security partners through an economic prism,” and because of Korea’s historical focus on immediate threats, especially from North Korea, “thinking on wider strategic interests has been less developed.” More straightforwardly, Hayley Channer argues that “South Korea’s current foreign and defense policy is narrow in focus… (and its) foreign policy neglects its capacity for regional-order shaping and security contribution.”

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 Korea’s own strategic perceptions and priorities. As mentioned, Seoul and Canberra share the same strategic interests in upholding the rules-based order. They are also on the same page in acknowledging that it is imperative to work together to deal with geopolitical risks, such as US-China strategic competition. However, Koreans differ from Australians in the strategic lens through which they define the surrounding environments and accordingly prioritize their responses. In this respect, it is very important to understand Koreans’ own considerations, sensitivities, complexities, and perceptions that stem from thousands of years of history and interactions with China. Korea’s geographical adjacency to mainland China, with both South and North Korea sharing maritime and land borders with it, should also be put into perspective. For this reason, Korea’s perception of China has historically been quite different from other countries like Japan.

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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 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. Based on this strategic framework, Seoul under President Moon’s leadership adopted an approach of ‘balanced diplomacy,’ in which the diplomatic priority is given to ‘maintaining a solid alliance with the US and at the same time keeping a strategic partnership with China.’ The balanced diplomacy approach is based on the recognition that, given China’s dominant influence over North Korea as well as its economic importance to Korea, Korea must secure China’s trust and cooperation.

NSP and Seoul’s Evolving Strategic Considerations

When Seoul’s brand-new regional initiative, the New Southern Policy (NSP), was launched in November 2017, it was designed and implemented as a functional cooperation agenda engaging with ASEAN and India. The Moon administration did not intend to present the NSP as a strategic agenda dealing with regional strategic and security matters to regional partners. In this sense, by design, the NSP is devoid of any strategic and hard security elements in its operational programs. From its inception, Seoul chose to strategically leave sensitive security and defense issues out of the scope of the NSP. Of course, the primary motivation for this stems from the strategic framework of ‘balanced diplomacy’ as noted above. The single most important driver to design the NSP in such a way was to minimize any risks of being drawn into the pitfalls of US-China strategic rivalry. On the contrary, Seoul chose deliberately to prioritize development cooperation as the central tool of NSP engagement because it finds its competitive advantage vis-à-vis other major countries in the area of development cooperation. For this reason, Korea has developed extensive programs and projects in the domain of the NSP’s ‘people and prosperity’ pillar.

As several Australian scholars have accurately indicated, the strategic framework of ‘balanced diplomacy’ by the Moon administration has limited the operational boundaries of the NSP, as well as Seoul’s engagement in regional security affairs. However, it is important to note that Seoul’s strategic considerations are not fixated on the ‘balanced diplomacy’ framework. Rather, Seoul’s strategic stance is evolving reflecting its changing perceptions as well as shifts in the strategic situations. For example, at the Korea-US summit held last May, President Moon and President Biden agreed on deepening and expanding bilateral cooperation based on the US’s Indo-Pacific initiative. In particular, the two countries agreed to expand the geographical scope, role, and agenda of the ROK-US 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 towards the US Indo-Pacific initiative. A similarly positive momentum should be expected on the frontiers of Korea-Australia collaboration as well.

Keeping Sustained Attentions in Diplomatic and Strategic Priorities

Finally, in order to advance their partnership forward 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 ROK perspective, President Moon’s top foreign policy priority is set on dealing with North Korea and managing relations with the US and China. His foremost focus has been on forging a durable détente with North Korea and making efforts to discourage Jong-un Kim from pursuing nuclear ambitions. Consequently, President Moon’s diplomatic attention and resources have been primarily devoted to managing inter-Korean relations and maintaining support from Washington and Beijing.

While Australia has always been supportive of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and extended strong support for Seoul’s campaign of peace toward Pyongyang, it is not a direct party to Korean Peninsula affairs as it does not have diplomatic resources or international standing to play such a role. In addition, Australia is currently left out of the scope of Seoul’s regional initiative, NSP, which focuses on only Southeast Asia and India. Seoul needs to fix this problem any time soon.

Indeed, Canberra has consistently identified Seoul as one of the key partners in its Indo-Pacific outlook in recent years. However, 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 US, Japan and India, and now AUKUS, as well as its closest neighbor, Indonesia, Australia’s diplomatic overtures toward 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 Korea and make strenuous efforts to engage Seoul as a ‘comprehensive strategic’ partner in the future.


By Wongi Choe, Professor, Korea National Diplomatic Academy and Asia Society Australia-Korea Fellow


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