Oceania | Diplomacy | East Asia | Oceania

Course Correction: Promising Signs for Australia-South Korea Relations

After a period of neglect, leaders in Canberra and Seoul appear to be putting bilateral ties back on course.

By Tom Corben for
Course Correction: Promising Signs for Australia-South Korea Relations
Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

After an extended period of neglect, recent events indicate that the Australia-South Korea bilateral relationship may finally be getting back on track. 

The most notable sign of an upswing in relations came on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last month. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and South Korean President Moon Jae-in had met at least once previously, on the sidelines of APEC in Papua New Guinea last November, but that meeting did not produce any notable outcomes. The latest meeting in New York, however, was markedly more productive.

There the two leaders outlined plans for “a reinvigorated period of collaboration” between their countries in areas including trade, infrastructure, defense and arms development, and renewable energy. Indeed, the meeting drew attention to efforts recently set in motion. Australian Resources Minister Matt Canavan recently visited Seoul to sign a hydrogen industry development agreement with his South Korean counterpart Sung Yun-Mo. Furthermore, Korean company Hanwha Defense is a leading contender to service the tenders for the Australian Defense Force’s multibillion dollar LAND 400 Phase 3 and LAND 8112 Protected Mobile Fires programs.

Importantly, Morrison followed up his meeting with Moon by publicly reaffirming the importance of South Korea to Australia’s regional outlook. In delivering the annual 2019 Lowy Lecture in Sydney last week, Morrison reaffirmed his intent to “put more effort” into the bilateral relationship, particularly in the energy and security realms. It was also significant that the prime minister couched these remarks in the context of discussing Australia’s other top-tier regional partnerships with India and Japan. Notwithstanding the more problematic elements of Morrison’s address — his apparent playing down of Australia’s agency as a middle power, for example — the prime minister’s public recommitment to the South Korea relationship was welcome, even if widely overlooked.

Given that bilateral engagement has seemingly fallen away somewhat in recent years, “reinvigorate” is an appropriate descriptor for what ought be done for the Australia-South Korea relationship. As two self-identifying and “like-minded” middle powers facing very similar geopolitical challenges, sporting similar power profiles and with a common strategic patron in the United States, it would seem puzzling to many that Australia and South Korea have yet to realize much of their relationship’s latent potential. Both states have actively sought greater diversity in their economic and strategic partnerships, looking beyond Beijing and Washington toward other emerging regional powers, including each other. However, it has appeared that neither side has been able — or perhaps willing — to make the efforts required to sustain an upward trajectory in bilateral relations. For example, the momentum behind Australia-South Korea defense relations evident in the last 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in October 2017 was seemingly forfeited as the relationship fell out of the spotlight by that year’s end.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The reasons for the Australia-South Korea drift are unclear, but evidence suggests that both sides have prioritized other policy issues ahead of bilateral relations. As I have previously argued, Australia’s nearsighted and reactive policy toward the Korean Peninsula had seen it focus on the North Korean nuclear threat and U.S. diplomatic prerogatives at the expense of furthering ties with the South. Meanwhile, leadership turmoil in Canberra clearly had a negative impact on efforts to deepen and diversify Australia’s key regional strategic partnerships, a factor which may have also hamstrung engagement with South Korea. 

Seoul, however, also shares responsibility for the drift. Although the Moon administration has been understandably preoccupied with inter-Korean relations and mediating the U.S.-North Korea diplomatic thaw, it has nonetheless sought to expand engagement with Southeast Asia and the Pacific through its New Southern Policy framework. In March, for example, Moon made a brief three-nation tour of Southeast Asia, where his administration has put particular stock in strengthening ties with Indonesia in particular. Moon also made a state visit to New Zealand last December, which included consultations over coordinating the two countries’ respective regional strategies.

At the time, analysts pointed to Moon’s Wellington visit as evidence that the scope and substance of the New Southern Policy was expanding. Yet Canberra has remained a notable absentee from Seoul’s regional engagements. On the face of it, that Moon visited two of Australia’s nearest neighbors without even a brief stop-over in Australia itself gave the impression that the administration either saw little to gain in such a visit, or had downgraded the importance of Australia in its regional outlook. The missed opportunities could just as easily have been a victim of the president’s scheduling or political turmoil in Australia, but in that light it was hard not to interpret Morrison’s omission of South Korea from a list of close partners in a notable pre-G-20 address in June as a retaliation of sorts. 

Now, however, with both leaders committing to reinvigorated collaboration, the stage is set to leave put the bilateral partnership back on course. Doing so will require that both sides go beyond simply emphasizing their shared values or their like-minded middle power identities as the natural basis for bilateral cooperation. Focusing instead on shared or complimentary interests could lead to the setting of clearer policy goals, targets which would better motivate the sort of sustained momentum the relationship has seemingly lacked, notwithstanding the best efforts and intentions of officials from either side.

To close the gap between discourse and action, the two states should build upon the recent leaders’ meeting and clearly outline an updated framework for advancing cooperation. At once ambitious yet realistic, this framework could build upon the 2015 Blueprint for Defense and Security Cooperation, itself an ambitious agenda for bilateral defense cooperation. Setting out clear policy targets for advancing cooperation in the particular areas nominated by the Blueprint would be a good place to start. For instance, Canberra and Seoul could consider commencing negotiations over an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, with an eye to discussing a reciprocal access agreement in the future. The evolution of Australia’s security cooperation with Japan provides both a template and a benchmark for that between Australia and South Korea, notwithstanding the nuances of Japan’s unique strategic context. As one of Seoul’s only two 2+2 Dialogue partners — the other being Washington — Canberra is in perfect position to assist South Korea in developing a strategic tradition beyond the geographic and geostrategic confines of the U.S. alliance, in much the same way that Canberra has established itself as Tokyo’s most important security partner beyond its own alliance framework. In fact, Australia and South Korea should consider leveraging their respective alliances with the United States in the pursuit not only of bilateral cooperation, but trilateral engagement with Washington — an initiative clearly noted in the 2015 Blueprint.

On the diplomatic front, both leaders could demonstrate their genuine commitment to a reinvigorated relationship if one were to invite the other for a state visit. Morrison recently announced that he had accepted the invitations of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to visit their respective countries early in 2020. Therein lies an opportunity for South Korea to cement itself in the minds of Australian policymakers as a key strategic partner. Alternatively, Morrison could just as easily extend the same invitation to Moon. Depending on the near-term success of “reinvigoration,” the two countries may also consider upgrading the biannual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue to an annual meet. Committing to more frequent, formalized interactions between the countries’ defense and foreign ministers — beyond brief engagements on the sidelines of international forums — would help them build stronger interpersonal relationships, and could deepen and accelerate discussions over tangible cooperation on mutual interests. More frequent top-level dialogues would also increase the visibility of the bilateral relationship in the Australian and Korean public eyes, and would give the relationship greater context beyond the history of the Korean War or the confines of the peninsula. 

Ultimately, such high-level meetings are most effective when the bilateral relationship already sports a broad, forward-looking agenda, that which gives leaders and policymakers actual targets to work towards with their counterparts. For more frequent dialogue between Australia and South Korea to be more than symbolic would require both governments to commit to pursuing more concrete policy objectives. Thankfully, the signs are that such is the trajectory of the reinvigorated relationship. The next 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue is scheduled to be held in Australia this year. With Moon and Morrison agreeing to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship, it will be worth paying close attention to the outcomes of that meeting. 

Tom Corben is a research assistant with the Foreign Policy and Defence division, at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.