Moon’s visit is no coup for the China hawks

By Lauren Richardson, Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University

Securing a state visit from outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a nice diplomatic win for Australia. But Lauren Richardson writes Canberra should not read too much strategic significance into it – Moon has a different set of foreign policy priorities to his hosts.

A hallmark of the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is its preoccupation with North Korea. Seoul devotes whole-of-government resources to improving ties with Pyongyang, a policy Moon remains steadfastly focused on as he counts down the final months of his leadership.

This makes Moon’s three-day state visit to Australia this week all the more remarkable because the country is largely beyond the scope of the Moon administration’s foreign policy focus.

Indeed, the new Omicron coronavirus strain threatened to derail Moon’s travel plans at the last minute. As it was, the state of the pandemic forced plans for the visit to be considerably scaled back.

While the realisation of this trip is significant in the context of 2021 being the 60th anniversary of Seoul and Canberra establishing diplomatic ties, Australia-Korea ties have never matched the levels of energy and interest both countries invest in other regional partners.

After spasmodic attempts to establish better relations with North Korea, Moon’s second foreign policy priority is the management of South Korea’s alliance with the United States, which was considerably strained under the Trump administration. The bilateral relationship with Japan was also a focus of Moon’s early term, as he faced the fallout from a series of domestic court cases that aggravated disputes between Seoul and Tokyo over the history of Japanese occupation of the peninsula. And then there is China. Besides being subject to Beijing’s economic coercion over missile deployments, Moon has had to navigate escalating tensions between this key economic partner and his US ally.

In addition to these key priorities, Moon initiated a new plank of foreign policy to increase engagement with South and Southeast Asia. This “New Southern Policy” was partly a response to China’s coercive economic tactics. But it did not encompass Australia, leaving observers of the bilateral relationship wondering if Canberra had fallen off Seoul’s foreign policy radar.

What, then, does Moon’s visit to Australia signify about Canberra’s place in Seoul’s foreign policy agenda, and how it has evolved?

Moon’s visit was widely cited in the Australian media as a sign of increasing strategic alignment between Seoul and Canberra over policy challenges posed by China. This interpretation is shaped by the fact that Australia views South Korea through the prism of its Indo-Pacific strategy, a concept that the South Korean government has yet to adopt in theory or practice. This perception is further reinforced by the signing of a billion-dollar contract for Australia to buy self-propelled artillery from South Korea, a focal point of Moon’s visit, and by the assertions of both leaders over South Korean and Australian “like-mindedness” – a term that has come to acquire Indo-Pacific connotations.

While Seoul is aligned with Canberra on the importance of maintaining the “rules-based order” in the region and the two leaders this week signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, Moon’s visit is not an indication of growing bilateral strategic alignment vis-à-vis China. The regional paradigm that the South Korean government subscribes to is still the Asia Pacific; and it remains wary of the Indo-Pacific construct and its anti-China overtones.

Moon’s visit to Australia is better understood in the context of his administration’s desire to redirect supply chains away from China to countries that are perceived as reliable partners in the region. In recent years, Australia has risen up the ranks on this list, and might now be an additional arc to his New Southern Policy. This is owing to a combination of factors: the strain wrought by the Trump administration on the US-South Korea alliance, the downgrading of Japan as a preferential trade partner (a mutual process), and China’s predilection for cutting off critical supply chains for political ends.

The defence contract that South Korea has with Australia and others it continues to pursue are part of its supply chain strategy, as John Blaxland and I noted in an earlier article. In short, South Korea’s strategic interests in Australia are in securing supply chains—not in working together to push back against China. While Moon shares many of Canberra’s concerns about China, his approach to dealing with such challenges is to gradually reduce dependence—not to join a strategic coalition against China.

We should also be cautious about assuming Moon’s comments that AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue contribute to regional “peace and prosperity” and demonstrate a willingness to embrace or engage in Indo-Pacific policies. Moon is paying lip service to those policies as a means to balance the growing divergence between his government’s China policy and the China policies of other important partners – the United States and now Australia. Far from having followed the lead of Washington in relation to China, the Moon administration has been at pains not to overtly provoke or criticise China, and to glean any indications from Washington’s statements that it is deescalating its tensions with Beijing.

Strategic alignment on China policy should not be the yardstick by which Australia measures the importance or strength of its bilateral relations in the region. As Moon alluded to during his visit, there is much that Seoul and Canberra can do toward the promotion of peace stability in the region. And although the development of the bilateral relationship has long been lagging, Moon’s visit is indicative that it remains on a firm trajectory of deepening institutionalisation.

This is important because South Korean presidents serve single five-year terms, which imposes limits on continuity in foreign policy. We are used to seeing significant shifts in foreign policy between the administrations of left-leaning or progressive presidents like Moon and conservatives.

Moon returns to Seoul ahead of a new presidential election in March, battling against both time and probability to secure his most cherished foreign policy legacy – better relations with his capricious northern neighbour.

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.

Banner image: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison meet in Canberra ahead of the signing of the countries' Comprehensive Strategic Partnership - December, 13, 2021. Credit: @moonriver365, Moon Jae-in, Twitter.