4 May 2022
South Korea and the Quad
South Korea’s president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, has signalled plans to play a more active role in regional security, saying that he would “positively review” any invitation to join the Quad. Yoon’s statement would be well received by Australia. The two countries have forged intimate defence ties, including a recent A$1 billion deal for Australia to buy thirty self-propelled howitzers and fifteen armoured supply vehicles.
However, a major impediment to South Korea’s ability to become a Quad member is its relationship with Japan. There are still a number of outstanding disputes between the two countries stemming from Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. These tensions often undermine their broader shared interests.
Yet last week, Yoon, who takes office on 10 May, sent an advanced delegation to Tokyo to discuss prospective areas of cooperation with Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida. The highly receptive Kishida informed the delegation that “there is no time to waste in improving Japan–South Korea relations” and that “strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea, as well as between Japan, the United States and South Korea, is needed more than ever.”
Indicating Yoon understands that the Quad’s primary objective should be to gain greater legitimacy in South-East Asia, he stated that South Korea should seek to cooperate with Quad countries on “vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies”. Later this month, Yoon is expected to join the leaders of Australia, the United States, Japan and India as an observer to their next scheduled meeting in Tokyo.
Last Thursday, a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III left Hanoi, Vietnam bound for Juba, South Sudan. The aircraft was transporting Vietnam People’s Army personnel, equipment and medical supplies to assist Vietnam’s peacekeeping operations as part of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). This was the fourth time since 2018 that Australia has provided assistance to Vietnam’s UNMISS rotations.
Vietnam has become an increasingly important partner for Australia in the Indo-Pacific, despite the two countries’ different political values. Presently, Vietnam’s interests carry far greater weight than any ideological affinity its Communist Party may have with its Chinese counterpart. Vietnam understands that its development and rising status are best served by maintaining the peace and stability of the regional status quo.
There are also more immediate calculations for Vietnam. China’s claims in the South China Sea (known as the East Sea in Vietnam) would effectively cut Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone to a quarter of its legitimate size. This makes Vietnam a stickler for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and requires it to seek more intimate partnerships with rule-abiding countries like Australia.
For Australia, Vietnam has become central in its push to coordinate more closely with South-East Asia. Australia’s assistance with Vietnam’s peacekeeping operations is about building trust and intimacy through practical cooperation. The Australian government has proposed elevating the relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership by next year. The only other ASEAN nation Australia has such a partnership with is Singapore.
China braces for sanctions
The “no limits” partnership that China forged with Russia in February is looking like a serious misstep for Beijing. China wanted the asset of a like-minded great power, capable of helping it to undermine what it sees as the restraints of the rules-based order. But it has instead found itself attached to a state that looks weak, chaotic and confused. Russia has been incapable of carrying out its strategic aims in its immediate region and has created the countereffect of consolidating the Western alliance as Finland and Sweden look set to join NATO.
Russia’s actions have also exposed China’s ambitions to new risks. President Vladimir Putin may not be overly concerned with the economic costs inflicted on Russia from its invasion of Ukraine, but the Chinese Communist Party takes economic costs incredibly seriously. Chinese bureaucrats have recently met with both domestic and foreign banks to discuss how China could protect itself from any potential sanctions, such as those that have been imposed on Russia.
The scenario being anticipated by Beijing is how the West would respond to China’s efforts to seize control of Taiwan, although sanctions could also be imposed due to any assistance China offers Russia. The ability of the United States and its allies to freeze the Russian central bank’s dollar assets is deeply concerning to Beijing as it holds $1.5 trillion of US bonds. China also has a vast array of assets – such as buildings and businesses in the US and other Western countries like Australia – that could be seized.
Yet China’s integration with the global economy may give it insurance, which depends on how much economic pain the West is willing to inflict on itself in order to punish China for any aggressive moves.