Last week the Yoon government announced its Indo-Pacific Strategy. This fresh look at the geopolitical dynamics of the region is long overdue. The government of Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in were obsessed with the emerging US-China strategic competition and assumed that the regional dynamic was bipolar — which is to say that the future of the region would be defined by interactions between Beijing and Washington. This approach denied Korean agency and ignored the reality that Asia is increasingly multipolar. The key to harnessing multipolarity is cooperation among the middle powers in Asia.
In this new Indo-Pacific vision, no country presents a better opportunity for Korea than Australia. As I have noted in previous columns, no country may be more important geopolitically for Korea than Japan but reshaping the Japan relationship will be slow and hard work for historical, legal, and political reasons. Meanwhile, the Australia-Korea relationship is ripe for greater partnership.
I have seen this first-hand since taking leave from Georgetown University and CSIS in Washington to run the US Studies Centre in Sydney. To be candid, the Australia-Japan relationship has moved far ahead of Australia-Korea and includes the most significant joint security declaration either country has done with any party other than the United States. But Korea-Australia is rapidly stepping up, beginning with the Moon state visit to Australia in December 2021 —the first by any leader from East Asia after Covid-19 — and then the Yoon-Albanese meeting in Madrid in July at the NATO Summit.
How far can Australia-Korea relations go? Pretty far, according to Dr Peter K. Lee, the top Korea hand in Australia and a senior fellow at the US Studies Centre and Melbourne University. Dr Lee was born in the working-class suburbs of Melbourne, the son of a Korean immigrant who worked as a welder in the ship-building industry.
The Lee family’s experience is the kind of success story I heard often in the United States, where hard work in a welcoming new country brought a family into the middle class and provided amazing education opportunities for their children. Peter went on to finish his PhD (on Australia-Korea relations) and is now recognized as a leading Korean expert of his generation in the Australian think tank and academic worlds.
Officials here tell me that Australia is maybe one generation behind the United States in terms of building the kind of diaspora talent pool in senior levels of government, industry, and academia. The United States benefits from policy academics like Victor Cha and David Kang or senior Korean-American diplomats like Julie Chung, Joseph Yoon or Sung Kim at the State Department. Korean-Australian diplomat James Choi rose to be ambassador in Seoul, and others are starting to climb up the ranks in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Defence or the armed forces. That community will provide real glue — and ideas — for Korea-Australia relations going forward. (And I should note Australia’s most senior Korea hand, Gordon Flake of the Perth US-Asia Studies Centre who moved from Washington with all his deep experience and connectivity to Korea).
Of course, Australia has a long and intimate history in the security of the Korean peninsula, beginning with combat in the Korean War and carrying to this day because of Australia’s role in the UN Command. It is not uncommon for American officials to receive briefings from brigadier generals on the staff who are Australian. There is no scenario in which North Korea breaks the armistice in which Australians are not also standing shoulder-to-shoulder in harm’s way.
Now Korea and Australia are poised to build what Moon and Morrison envisioned in their new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. And Peter Lee sees huge upside opportunities.
One specific area for growth in the relationship highlighted by Dr Lee will be defense policy and industrial relations. Korean firms are helping build the Australian Army’s self-propelled howitzer and will likely build the Australian Army’s new infantry fighting vehicle (though that decision will have to wait for the Australian government’s internal Defence Strategic Review). Korean firms would be natural partners for Australia’s autonomous guided missile and explosive ordnance enterprise — an ambitious plan to build rockets and missiles in Australia. Right now, US firms are partners, but down the road, Korean firms could be a core part of a federated group of allies producing the kinds of weapons systems needed to hold adversaries at risk and at bay in the new security environment (and to learn from the combat experiences we see in Ukraine).
Interestingly, the US Studies Centre found in a survey in September that 50 percent of Australians support Korea joining AUKUS — the Australia, UK, US agreement to build nuclear-powered submarines and develop advanced capabilities. That shows the high level of trust in Korea. However, the nuclear-powered submarine deal will likely not expand to fourth or fifth parties, and so the real opportunity down the road for Korea is in building advanced capabilities together with the US, UK and Australia in areas such as hypersonics, advanced cyber or AI.
Dr Lee also sees growing alignment on trade and economic issues between Australia and Korea. The 2015 Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement in 2015 is moving forward well and 65 percent of Australians in the US Studies Centre survey support inviting Korea to join CPTPP (compared with 31 per cent of Japanese respondents who favoured including Korea). Peter Lee also notes critical minerals and renewable energy are already growing areas of Australia-Korea relations -especially hydrogen and zinc. In fact, Australia’s single largest private sector customer is already Posco, showing the depth of economic relations on the critical minerals and natural resource side.
Dr Lee also notes the likely alignment of Korea and Australia around supply chain security and countering economic coercion by China. Both Korea and Australia have been the victims of major China’s embargoes — Korea over Thaad and Australia over a range of issues that angered Beijing. Australia resisted the coercion more effectively than the Moon government did in the Thaad boycott, though Australia did have the advantage that fewer jobs were on the line than in the Thaad case, as Dr Lee emphasizes. But he notes that Australia and Korea have already cooperated in an emergency to support supply chains. When China blocked exports of a key product to Korea called Adblue for diesel last year, Australia stepped in to replace the needed materials. This rapid cooperation points to the kind of bilateral cooperation that is possible to resist embargoes and coercion in a more comprehensive strategy among like-minded states.
As Asia moves towards increasing multipolarity, the US alliance system is moving from the Cold War era “hub and spokes” framework centered on bilateral alliances with the United States towards “hubs and spokes” as allies become their own net exporters of security within the region. This is good for the United States and Korea both.