Time for less rhetoric and more substance from Australia–South Korea ministerial talks
10 Sep 2021|

There’s been a strong focus on the upcoming AUSMIN talks between Australia’s defence and foreign ministers and their US counterparts and calls for Australia to press the US robustly to deliver more substantive Indo-Pacific and defence exports policies.

That has to some extent overshadowed important meetings with Indonesia, India and South Korea that are about to take place and which approach the same issues from a different direction.

Next week’s meeting of Australian and South Korean foreign and defence ministers, the fifth in a series, provides an opportunity to lend more content to the process. That’s made easier because both are capable US allies, both belong to the Indo-Pacific and are substantial trade partners, and both face some similar geostrategic challenges. In the wake of the poorly planned and executed US departure from Afghanistan, calls among NATO partners in Europe, and allies in Asia and Australia, for greater self-reliance and regional coalition-building have grown. The Australia–Korea 2+2 meeting is an opportunity to give this some substance.

When a less capable South Korea faced the continuing North Korean threat, it couldn’t have been expected to focus much beyond the peninsula. But that has changed, and South Korea today has the capability, if not always the intent, to undertake wider missions supporting stability in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. It’s become a significant participant in UN peacekeeping and US-led counter-piracy operations in the northern Indian Ocean.

But as a RAND Corporation study argued in 2019, ‘South Korea’s defence cooperation is often seen as more piecemeal than as part of a consistent strategic approach to foreign policy aimed at binding the Indo-Pacific together; expanding the ROK’s [Republic of Korea’s] influence; and reinforcing shared norms, values and intents.’

There are two parts to this problem. Each new Korean administration seems to find it politically necessary to ditch foreign policy initiatives of its predecessor and to embark on new ones. Hence, in 2017 the Moon Jae-In administration’s ‘New Southern Policy’ replaced its predecessor’s ‘Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative’. A consistent strategic approach is a casualty of Seoul’s sharply divided left–right politics, lessening its influence and, in the case of the NSP, is more about trade competition and diversification than about Korea pulling its strategic weight with its like-minded partners.

The other part is the imperative Korea feels to be seen to ‘balance’ between China, its biggest trade partner and near neighbour, and its longstanding ally the United States.

Like Australia, Korea has felt the harsh impact of Chinese economic coercion, with far-reaching measures imposed following its 2016 agreement to host a US THAAD anti-missile battery. And Seoul, correctly, considers Beijing to be critical in managing the ever-present North Korean threat.

But Korea’s balancing act can minimise the importance of its other regional interests, including the critical sea lines of communication through the South China Sea, along which much of the country’s highly trade-dependent imports and exports flow.

Its inability to heal historical rifts with Japan also inhibits the development of cooperation with Japan, the US and others which might serve to better monitor and balance China’s assertive policies in North and Southeast Asia.

More of South Korea’s friends are stepping up in East Asia to respond to the challenge of China. Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK have all recently sent naval units to the region.

Pressure is mounting on Korea, not least from the US, to play a more supportive role in ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific. Moon’s reluctant preparedness to associate with the non-military elements of the Quad responded to this pressure. Korea’s ambassador to Australia recently acknowledged that the Quad is an ‘important anchor for stability’, but Korea remains wary of military arrangements with others that could provoke further Chinese anger.

All four previous Australia–Korea 2+2 meetings have been marked by lengthy joint statements of shared views on a wide range of contemporary issues and wordy, generalised commitments ‘to strengthen cooperation to address current and evolving security in an increasingly uncertain strategic environment’, to ’work to address challenges’ and to ‘continue identifying opportunities for further collaboration in areas of mutual interest’.

Strategic dialogues and service-to-service talks seem at times to be a substitute for real work on interoperability and common purpose. It’s difficult to discern from the biennial blizzard of diplomatic speak whether much progress has in fact materialised from these earnest declarations over the past eight years.

A memorandum of understanding on defence research, development, testing and evaluation was signed in 2019, with potential work on maritime robotics identified. Korea participated, at a very modest level, in Australia’s Exercise Talisman Sabre this year. Both are certainly small steps forward. The biennial naval anti-submarine warfare exercise Haedoli Wallaby continues to be the centrepiece of bilateral defence exercising. But there hasn’t been much interest on either side in expanding the scope or frequency of exercises or service-to service collaboration outside of the separate UN Command annual exercises.

Meanwhile, Australia has committed to purchasing 30 Korean self-propelled howitzers, and Korea’s Hanwha is one of two companies bidding for Australia’s next generation of armoured personnel carriers. But as the RAND study noted, Korea’s defence exports are not coordinated or promoted as part of a broader strategic policy. A serious promotional effort might include proposals to lift the level of ambition in the defence relationship.

As in Australia, Korean public opinion has turned decisively against China, running well ahead of government policy. A conservative administration in Korea after next year’s presidential election could be more receptive to expanded defence relationships, even if formal accession to the Quad may still be considered a step too far and likely to further provoke China.

Australia has yet to take South Korea more seriously as an important element in our declared intention to build our regional defence relationships. The rapidity of strategic change both countries face in the region suggests now might be the time for them to seed substance into the 2+2. Another year of pious declarations of ‘identifying opportunities’ or ‘seeking to enhance training and exercises’ without real content devalues the currency and raises questions about commitment on both sides.