Rethinking the Potential for Australia-ROK Relations

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

Australia-South Korea relations have long been seen as “underdone”. As two influential middle powers in the Indo-Pacific, collaboration to reform and reinvigorate the international rules-based order might provide the opportunity for Canberra and Seoul to deepen ties, writes Lauren Richardson.

Six months after Yoon Suk-yeol was inaugurated as South Korea’s president in May 2022, he unveiled an Indo Pacific strategy. This heralded a shift from an Asia-Pacific to an Indo-Pacific regional policy paradigm, a transition that had occurred significantly earlier in the United States and its other allies in the region. This time lag was in part reflective of the divergences between the strategic outlooks of policymakers in Seoul and those in capitals that had taken their cues from Washington and Tokyo and embraced the Indo-Pacific construct, including Canberra.

Such divergences are frequently cited by analysts as a reason why the bilateral relationship between South Korea and Australia is under cultivated and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. It is often mentioned that for Australia the greatest strategic challenge is how to manage security concerns vis-à-vis China; for South Korea, it is the omnipresent threat from North Korea.

Yet this perspective gives too much weight to strategic convergence—particularly in relation to traditional security issues—in the development of relationships. It also is overly focused on bilateral dynamics in Seoul-Canberra relations and overlooks the potential for their interactions in the multilateral sphere.

A new Asialink report published this week examines opportunities for Australia and South Korea to develop their ties through cooperating in both multilateral and bilateral institutions to address challenges to the “rules-based order” (RBO). The report is premised on a view that the two countries’ can elevate their relations through greater institutional closeness and diplomatic collaboration in the RBO realm. It provides a comprehensive evaluation of the foreign policy traditions of Seoul and Canberra and how these have evolved over time. On the basis of this analysis, it establishes a logic for cooperation on challenges to the RBO and identifies specific RBO-related agendas for the two governments to address.

The publication of this report is timely in light of deteriorating regional stability. As security tensions have escalated in the Indo-Pacific, Australian foreign policy discourse has tended to recognize “close partners” as those with converging Indo-Pacific policies and strategic utility in helping to manage concerns about Beijing. Regional challenges, however, are certainly not limited to China nor to the traditional security realm.

The heightened strategic competition in the region takes place against a backdrop of other challenges to world order. In the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere in the world, the RBO is progressively being challenged by the dynamics of great power rivalry, manifested in increasing technological, economic and security competition, and interstate war. The cumulation of treaties, norms and institutions that constitute this order have served to promote and maintain international and regional security since the chaos of the Second World War, and have served to mediate a multitude of human interactions across (and often within) state borders. This order is now in crisis.

There is therefore an urgent need for coalition building among states with shared interests in the maintenance of a stable and prosperous region, and with the capacities—diplomatic, bureaucratic, economic and otherwise—to develop a RBO that is both open and inclusive.  This requires agreement on rules that reflect the interests of all stakeholders, promotes respect for an international order governed by rules, and assists the transition to a multipolar world. There is a strong view, certainly in the Asian region, that this is not a task that should be left to great powers alone but should ideally be pursued through collaboration among middle powers and their engagement with small and great powers. There is a further view those working to strengthen the RBO should where possible seek international consensus – and recognize that disputes over specific rules are sometimes based on genuine differences of perspective.

South Korea and Australia, two prototypical middle powers in the Indo-Pacific, have significant potential to engage collaboratively to reinforce and revise important aspects of the RBO. As major beneficiaries of the postwar RBO, Australia and the ROK have mutual interests in the promotion of open and inclusive rules and institutions for the mediation of interstate relations in the region. The fact that both countries have shifted to an Indo-Pacific regional policy paradigm helps to establish a more solid discursive framework for cooperation.

There are significant divergences in Seoul and Canberra’s China policies. When analysed strategically, those divergences can be viewed as obstacles to cooperation. Yet, when it comes to RBO cooperation, they can serve as opportunities for deepening cooperation. Despite differences in their respective China policies, both governments share an interest in incorporating China in a regional and global order that ensures that China’s rise is an opportunity and not a threat. In striving to achieve a more inclusive RBO, Australia could benefit and learn from South Korea’s historical and cultural intimacy with China. South Korea’s relatively nuanced relationship with China adds to its value to Australia as a partner in international endeavours.

Australia, on the other hand, can perhaps augment South Korea’s relationship with ASEAN and help it to deepen its relations in Southeast Asia and the Asian regional more generally. Although Australia’s trade with ASEAN is smaller than South Korea’s, Australia is ASEAN’s oldest dialogue partner and in 2021 became one of only two countries (the other being China) to be accorded Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) status.

Also, while Australia and Seoul are both allies of the United States, there are nuances to their alliance relationships that could be mutually beneficial in pursuing their common interest in encouraging Washington to adhere to the existing RBO architecture, which it was instrumental in designing.

The report argues that by acting together – especially in cooperation with ASEAN – Australia and the ROK could take diplomatic action to supplement creatively their international identity as US allies. Such cooperation need not be seen as antagonistic by either the US or China. It would have the potential, however, to strengthen middle-power agency in RBO work—and, at the same, give a boost to inclusive regionalism.  It might even serve to lower the temperature in Sino-US relations and widen the range of opportunities for great power cooperation.  The time is ripe for Australia and the ROK to embark on that journey.

Lauren Richardson is a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University. She was the lead researcher and author of the Asialink-Korea Foundation report “Challenges to the Rules-Based Order: Agendas for Australia-ROK Cooperation”.

Photo: Catherine Raper