South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s go to to Australia this week comes at a essential level within the relationship between the international locations.
Moon is the primary world chief to go to Australia for the reason that COVID pandemic started and the federal authorities shut the nation’s borders.
The 2 international locations have signed a billion-dollar weapons contract, which has dominated the headlines in Australia. However whereas this contract is critical, it’s only a really small step – there’s far more to do.
A relationship on the again burner
Australia and South Korea haven’t actually paid consideration to the connection in recent times. It’s principally been ignored for at the very least a decade, if not longer.
The issue is, the connection is a sufferer of its personal success. Australia and South Korea have a extremely complimentary commerce relationship and there are not any main issues. Because of this, they’ve simply let it linger.
This implies they’re ranging from an empty chair by way of bettering the connection, so this go to is a crucial first step.
In South Korea, not many individuals take into consideration Australia. There isn’t an possibility for college students to deal with Australia in highschool or college and see Australia as a spot to take a position their time and efforts for future careers.
Because of this, there are cohorts of scholars going into authorities and enterprise with completely no data of, or curiosity in, Australia.
In case you evaluate this to Australia, there are college students who’re finding out Korean or are targeted on Korean research for enterprise, defence, and popular culture, after all. However Australia isn’t doing something to advertise itself in South Korea.
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Discovering frequent floor
There are some commonalities on which to construct a stronger relationship. Each Australia and South Korea are mid-sized, secondary powers. That is essential, as they’re each dealing with related challenges negotiating between main powers and with different regional powers.
They’re additionally each superior societies dealing with related challenges on well being care, the surroundings and governance. So, there are many areas the place they will work collectively.
On strategic points, the key defence contract introduced this week goes to the South Korean defence big Hanwha to construct 30 self-propelled howitzers and 15 armoured ammunition resupply autos for the Australian military.
It’s a part of a brand new memorandum of understanding on defence business and supplies cooperation, which comes after the earlier settlement between the 2 nations lapsed a decade in the past.
The Hanwha contract is definitely massive, however there’s an enormous distinction in the best way South Koreans and Australians see the deal.
Australians imagine it’s of nice strategic consequence, tied to regional tensions and China’s rising affect. However South Koreans don’t see it that means. They’re viewing it as a business transaction that has nothing to do with China in any respect.
The truth is, when you take a look at the South Korean press – and significantly the Korean language press – it doesn’t point out China in relation to Moon’s journey to Australia. Reasonably, it’s targeted on securing assets – particularly urea – and sustaining these useful resource provides.
South Korea’s future function within the area
This reveals the international locations are on basically totally different pages in the case of regional safety, and that is going to change into extra of a problem sooner or later.
A whole lot of it depends upon what occurs within the South Korean presidential elections subsequent yr. If a conservative chief is elected, South Korea shall be extra keen to cooperate with Australia and the US, and play a bigger function alongside the 2 of them (to a level). This received’t occur if there’s a progressive administration.
However even when there’s a conservative chief, South Korea won’t ever go so far as Australia in condemning China’s actions. It’s not in South Korea’s pursuits to do this. Not solely does Seoul want China to assist in its negotiations with North Korea, however South Korea’s largest companies are closely invested in China, and so they received’t wish to injury the connection.
So, the long-term pattern of South Korea’s place isn’t in direction of lining up with Australia and the US.
Nevertheless, South Korea shall be making some main choices over the subsequent ten years or so, and these embody reassessing its relationship with each the US and China and doubtlessly securing its personal impartial nuclear weapons capability.
South Korea has been reassessing its relationship with the US for a while. One difficulty, for example, is returning wartime operational command of South Korean troops from america Forces Korea to the South Korean navy. It is a small step in direction of South Korea turning into extra impartial from the US.
There’s even speak in safety circles of South Korea aiming for a impartial function within the area, turning into the Switzerland of North Asia. Ten years in the past, this wasn’t even talked about.
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The place Australia matches in
South Korea doesn’t view Australia as an essential actor in its choices. However there’s an essential function for them to play collectively within the area, which is why these strategic discussions are so important. Australia wants to extend its voice in South Korean coverage circles and make its opinions heard.
This downside goes again to the Howard years, when Australian international coverage choices principally simply adopted the US. In the course of the Rudd years, there was some good collaboration between Australia and South Korea, however on the finish of these administrations, this deteriorated considerably.
Now, there’s a chance for Australia to do far more. As an example, it ought to open a proper Australian Research Institute in South Korea, just like those it has in China and Japan, and attempt to set up extra joint college levels packages between the international locations.
The Australian Strategic Coverage Institute may additionally do extra work on South Korea and translate this into Korean. These types of issues can elevate the profile of Australia as an impartial thinker and actor within the area. Importantly, it may additionally make it extra seen in South Korean coverage circles.
Jeffrey Robertson doesn’t work for, seek the advice of, personal shares in or obtain funding from any firm or organisation that may profit from this text, and has disclosed no related affiliations past their educational appointment.