2 August 2023
The View from South Korea
Most South Koreans regard Australia as a true friend. During the Korean War (1950–53), Australia dispatched 17,164 soldiers to save South Korea from North Korea, reinforced by the “Red China” army, incurring 340 deaths. The legacy of this has been a values-based relationship between the two nations, ranging from partnerships in trade and investment to joint security drills and arms industry collaborations.
Now, as global tensions increasingly cause the world’s economies to fragment, South Korea and Australia, as like-minded countries, must move to a new level of cooperation. Amid the intensifying US–China rivalry, how can these two formidable middle powers work together to achieve common goals in the Indo-Pacific? This is a crucial challenge, although the election of president Yoon Suk Yeol in March 2022 appears to have created new opportunities for the two countries to reshape the region and promote a peaceful and open rules-based order.
In December 2022, Yoon’s government declared its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”, South Korea’s de facto diplomatic manifesto beyond its long-held focus on the Korean Peninsula. The initiative added a “prosperity” component – with a focus on the region’s economy – to the United States’ drive for a “Free and Open Indo- Pacific”.
Undoubtedly, Seoul has shifted from the “structural ambiguity” of the previous administration of Moon Jae-in to “strategic clarity” by aligning more directly with the United States and revitalising South Korea’s long-cherished Mutual Defense Pact with the Americans. To this end, the Yoon administration has resumed joint defensive drills with the US Armed Forces, which were suspended during Moon’s time in office. It also upgraded the US–South Korea security pact by regularising the US–South Korea Nuclear Consultative Group meeting to ensure an extended deterrence against North Korean nuclear provocations.
The Yoon government announced an approach to China involving principled diplomacy based on mutual respect and common interests; it does not want to decouple from Beijing but to reduce South Korea’s excessive trade and investment dependence on China. Given China’s influence over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, South Korea remains engaged with China concerning trade and investment and cross-border environmental issues, but it is taking a case-by-case approach to its relations with its largest neighbour.
Concurrently, Yoon’s administration has taken significant steps to restore the South Korea–Japan relationship from its worst state in decades by resolving the issue of Japanese compensation for forced labour by South Koreans during the colonial period. As a result of the diplomatic thaw with Japan, South Korea has restored the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan, which has allowed for the strengthening of US–South Korean–Japanese security cooperation. The three nations are now due to attend a US-hosted trilateral security summit at Camp David in September 2023.
In South Korea’s quest to find a pivotal role for itself in the emerging Indo-Pacific order, Australia is a key partner. Both countries are member of existing minilateral and multilateral groups, and both are part of major economic agreements and bodies such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
Economically, South Korea and Australia already benefit from the Korea–Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA), effective since 2014. South Korea is now Australia’s fourth-largest trading partner and depends on Australia’s critical mineral resources. KAFTA will not only eliminate tariffs on nearly all tradeable goods between the two countries within a decade but will guarantee “most favoured nation” treatment for services and investment.
Given each country’s strong ties with the United States, South Korea and Australia must advance their partnership to preserve a peaceful Indo-Pacific within the US-anchored security orbit. And yet the two countries must also display autonomy, particularly in managing US protectionism and China’s coercive trade practices.
In recent years, the United States has adopted unilaterally assertive, if not coercive, protectionist trade and investment policies at the expense of smaller and less powerful economies, such as by establishing arbitrary limits on the export of high-end semiconductors and equipment to China. In response, China is also turning to a coercive strategy of self- sufficiency in high-tech areas, especially semiconductors, by “weaponising” their endowments of strategic materials such as rare earths, nickel and lithium against those trading partners siding with the United States’ anti-China policy.
South Korea and Australia should stay within the US security and economic domain, but they must also steer their own paths when dealing with US and Chinese trade practices. South Korea, for instance, plans to submit a formal application to the regional trade pact – the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – in which Australia is a key member.
On the security side, South Korea and Australia can play an important role in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad – a security grouping including the United States, Australia, India and Japan – is still a loose-knit network of like-minded partners in an era of transition from the unipolar world to a bipolar one, triggered by China’s assertive rise. South Korea, along with New Zealand and Vietnam, has already participated in 2020 in the first working-group meeting of the Quad. Depending on how the Quad evolves, and on whether it can provide value in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear provocations, South Korea will decide whether or not to join the “Quad Plus” framework. For now, South Korea should participate in Quad working groups while keeping open the door to formal membership later.
South Korea and Australia must work together to pursue their own middle-power coalitions to ensure an inclusive regional order, as they did in engineering the formation of APEC. Ultimately, both countries must ensure that regional multilateralism in the Indo- Pacific remains an open-ended effort.
Choong Yong Ahn is distinguished professor at the graduate school of international studies at Chung-Ang University.