Recently, there’s been a lot of attention in Australia on our growing defence relationship with Japan. While a formal alliance between the two nations isn’t on the cards any time soon, progress has been remarkable. Even cooperation on Australia’s future submarine is now a serious option. In contrast, there’s much less interest in our defence ties with South Korea (ROK). But given the strategic shifts taking place in Northeast Asia, it’s important to consider the prospects for enhanced strategic relations with the ROK.
Strategically, the ROK is important to Australia in several ways. Like Australia and Japan, it’s a treaty ally of the United States and faces the question on how to deal with the rise of China. Moreover, if conflict breaks out again on the Korean peninsula, Australia—a member of the United Nations Command (UNC) and a party to the 1953 Armistice Agreement—could again be called upon to assist the ROK militarily. That scenario is far from unlikely since North Korea (DPRK) seems determined to possess a fully-developed nuclear-weapons program including long-range delivery systems, raising grim prospects for regional stability and indeed the global non-proliferation agenda.
However, the question of closer defence ties with the ROK extends beyond the Korean Peninsula. Over the past several years, the ROK has been an economic powerhouse in Northeast Asia, becoming the 13th largest economy in the world. If it succeeds in addressing current risks to long-term economic growth, the ROK could even join the top ten in a few years time. That trend has led to calls for the ROK to become a more ‘active middle power’ in regional and global security affairs. On the foreign policy level, Seoul’s decision to join Australia, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey in forming ‘MIKTA’ has been regarded as one step in that direction. As well, two ROK military aircraft joined the Australia-led search for the Malaysian airliner MH370 off Western Australia. The donation of an old corvette and the sale of 12 FA-5 multi-role fighters to The Philippines also signals the potential for a more active South Korean defence engagement in Southeast Asia. Lastly, the ROK Navy aims to develop a blue water capability which could be used for operations beyond the Peninsula.
In this strategic context, Australia has made efforts to enhance the bilateral strategic relationship. In July 2013, the first ‘2+2 meeting’ of foreign affairs and defence ministers was held in Seoul. Australia is only the second nation after the US to hold such meetings which are supported by annual Defence Minister Dialogues. In addition, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been involved in exercises with ROK and US forces on the peninsula and elsewhere. For instance, about 100 ADF personnel participated in the combined US–ROK amphibious exercise, SsangYong, in March–April this year. In August, Australia also joined the US–ROK Joint Exercise Able Response against a simulated biological threat. The same month, ADF personnel, headed by a one-star officer, participated in the US–ROK major annual exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian. And, for the third time, an ADF officer is filling the position of Commander UNC Rear in Japan.
Yet, despite those positive developments in the Australia–ROK defence relationship, it’s important to be realistic about its future. In fact, moving the strategic ties to a level similar to those with Japan seems unlikely. The primary reason for that is South Korea’s continued preoccupation with the situation on the peninsula. While understandable, it minimises the scope for deeper defence cooperation in two important ways:
First, the ROK is increasingly hostage to Chinese policies towards the peninsula and regional order-building. Not only is China by far the ROK’s most important trading partner, it is also the lifeline of the DPRK regime, and therefore indispensable to Seoul when it comes to resolving the problem of a divided Korea. As became clear during a recent visit of an ASPI delegation to two leading South Korean think tanks, many South Korean analysts now place their hopes on a gradual shift in Beijing’s policy from a resolute backing of the Pyongyang regime towards supporting Seoul’s unification objectives. Good relations with China therefore have a higher priority than working with the US, Australia, Japan and other like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific to prevent Beijing from eroding the rules-based order through unilateral coercive action. Equally worrying, Seoul and China share a mutual distrust of, and even hatred towards, Japan. Whilst predictions about a future Sino–ROK defence alliance are premature, the different hierarchy of strategic interests in Northeast Asia places limits on Australia–ROK defence relations—probably even more so if US–China strategic competition intensifies.
Second, despite much rhetoric the ROK has yet to spend significantly more resources on enhancing its security role beyond the peninsula. So far, the ROK military has failed to reciprocate our level of participation in military exercises in South Korea with a similar level of participation here in Australia. While that could certainly be rectified, it’s the strategic dimension that’s likely to pose significant obstacles to deeper Australia–ROK defence ties.