Australia and ROK: The untapped strategic opportunity

By Lauren Richardson, Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University,
and John Blaxland, Professor, International Security and Intelligence Studies – ANU

Australia and the Republic of Korea have made steady and modest steps towards a closer defence and security partnership amid growing regional strategic uncertainty. Lauren Richardson and John Blaxland argue the key to stronger ties lies in greater collaboration in defence industry, science and technology.

Sixty years ago, Australia and the Republic of Korea (ROK) established formal diplomatic relations.  A decade earlier, Australian troops were fighting with a US-led United Nations force to defend the ROK in the “gallant” defensive battle of Kapyong in April 1951. These significant milestones have spurred officials and academics in both countries to reflect on the bilateral relationship and explore policy options for strengthening it. The prospect of enhanced defence collaboration has been a particular focus of these discussions, driven in part by the bilateral momentum in this policy domain in recent years.

On the ROK side, the potential of Australia as a security partner rose to new heights over the course of Donald Trump’s presidential tenure. This was largely due to the strain that the Trump administration wrought on the US-ROK alliance, which has long been the bedrock of Seoul’s defence policy. Trump’s frequent derisions of the alliance and erratic North Korea policy encouraged officials in Seoul to question their exclusive reliance on the US security guarantee and to broaden their outlook on potential defence partners in the region.

This shift was reinforced by the downturn in diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which in turn undermined the two governments’ already tenuous defence ties. Against this backdrop, and established initiatives aimed at diversifying links as part of the ROK’s “New Southern policy”, the appeal of enhanced security cooperation with Australia gained traction among South Korean officials.  After all, Australia is a “like-minded” middle power and mutual “spoke” in the US-led regional alliance network.

These uncertainties generated similar momentum in Australia for exploring parallel constructive relationships. This was evident in the Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017 and reinforced in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. Nowadays, the defence relationship with Seoul is increasingly being viewed as a means to add ballast to Canberra’s Indo-Pacific security policy; this has gained more importance with the onset of the pandemic, which has witnessed a sharp deterioration in Canberra-Beijing ties. The defence relationship with Seoul also has a strong historical logic in Canberra, in light of Australia’s contribution of air, land and naval forces as part of the Korean War, and their contributions as US allies to the Vietnam War and occupation of Iraq.

The defence and security partnership between Australia and the ROK already has a solid institutional foundation. Since 2013, they have convened biennial 2+2 meetings of foreign and defence ministers – Australia being the only country other than the US to meet in such a format with ROK counterparts. In addition to this arrangement, the Australian Defence Force and Department of Defence participate in various exercises and regular dialogues with the ROK Armed Forces and Defence Ministry.

2+2 Talks
Then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and then-Defence Minister Marise Payne meet with former ROK Defence Minister Song Young-moo and then-Foreign Minister of the ROK Kang Kyung-wha for 2+2 talks - October 13, 2017. Image credit: @MarisePayne, Twitter.

Yet despite shared concerns about the regional security landscape, differing perceptions of the nature of the inherent threats — particularly in relation to China and North Korea — have limited the scope of joint communiqués to lists of activities rather than robust statements on the regional security outlook. To Seoul, North Korea is more than just a “rogue state,” and an Australian-style diplomatic showdown with China holds little strategic appeal.

In addition to such challenges, there appears to be a perception gap between the ROK and Australia over how the defence and security partnership should be developed. From the ROK standpoint, it should progress from a foundation of close defence industry and science and technology collaboration, which would promote trust and confidence building between stakeholders in both countries. This approach is premised on the belief that without such a foundation, the partnership would simply be based on a rhetorical commitment to security cooperation.

Indeed, as ANU scholar Peter Lee argues, unlike Australia, some of the ROK’s strongest defence partnerships such as with United Arab Emirates have developed through close linkages between trade, construction, and defence exports. From Australia’s standpoint, however, defence industry cooperation has tended not to be seen as a necessary precursor to, or essential constituent of, a robust defence and security partnership.

It is apparent to the ROK that Australia’s preferred defence industry partners are the United States and Europe. This preference was taken as a signal in Seoul of weak interest in Canberra in developing a wider security relationship. That perception could start to shift following a deal announced last September for Australia to procure 30 self-propelled howitzers, 15 armoured ammunition resupply vehicles and supporting systems from Hanhwa Defence. The $1.3 billion contract, which will see an assembly line set up in Geelong and the first vehicles roll off in 2023, is the biggest Australia has ever awarded to an Asian arms supplier.

The Hanwha AS41 Redback, which is in contention to join the ADF's fleet of fighting vehicles. Image credit: Hanwha Defense.

Hanwha’s AS41 Redback also is one of two remaining contenders to become the ADF’s new infantry fighting vehicle. This is a much richer prize, with estimates of the value of buying and supporting 450 tracked vehicles ranging between $18-$27 billion. The winner is expected to be announced in late 2021 or early 2022. But it would undoubtedly give the bilateral relationship a big boost if Hanwha were selected ahead of this year’s 2+2 in Seoul, marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

Regardless, Hanwha’s success in winning the howitzer contract is certain to be viewed in Seoul as a mark of solid progress towards establishing a wider defence and security relationship. Defence industry collaboration is increasingly seen as a contributor to securing regional supply chains; and this in turn has fuelled a preference in the ROK for developing defence industry partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.

Deepening defence industry collaboration in the overarching bilateral security relationship will assist Canberra and Seoul in moving their relationship forward. But the opportunities go beyond the purchase of armaments alone. Both countries have much to gain by cooperation in areas of mutual interest in the defence science and technology domain, such as space technology. This collaboration could be pursued either in a bilateral or trilateral context with the United States.

Continuing to build on these defence industry, science and technology ties can buttress a wider strategic opportunity for two important middle powers to contribute to regional stability. It can add momentum to efforts to achieve closer alignment of views on the regional strategic outlook and the interoperability of forces. And, in turn, it can help influence the nature of US engagement and build a stronger foundation for cooperation in regions where the two countries have common interest in ensuring stability and prosperity, notably Southeast Asia.

Lauren Richardson is a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University and Director of the ANU Japan Institute. From 2018-2020 she was Director of Studies and Lecturer in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the ANU.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies and former Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Banner image: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison exchange elbow bumps at the 2021 G7 Summit, Cornwall, UK -  June 12, 2021. Credit: The Blue House, Facebook.