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Australia and Korea: Cooperating for Peace in the Asia-Pacific

Panel presentation to UQ Korean Studies Webinar, Current Issues and Roles of Australia and Korea for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, 3 February 2021

Australia-Korea relations, although strong, have never quite reached their full potential, and it’s time that they did – economically, in people-to-people social and cultural terms, and above all in political and security terms, given the present fraught and fragile character of so much of the regional environment, with China under Xi Jinping now so openly assertive, the Korean Peninsula still an acute source of tension, and the United States struggling to retain the credibility it so comprehensively squandered under Trump.

There are quite firm foundations on which we can build our relationship in this geopolitical space. It was Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s visit to Seoul in January 1989 that saw the conception of the APEC process – born in Canberra ten month later at a conference I chaired as then Foreign Minister – and I remember well how closely and productively South Korean and Australian ministers and officials worked together as APEC evolved over the next few years, first in finding a way of embracing Taiwan as well as China in the process, and then in adding a leaders’ meeting to the institutional framework of this centrally important regional cooperation initiative.

I also remember well participating, albeit as a marginal rather than central player, in the Agreed Framework/KEDO negotiations in the mid-1990s, the first serious attempt to deal with the prospect of North Korean nuclear weapons capability. The status of each of us as firm allies of the United States helped then, as it does still now, in building trusting and constructive working relationships, but there can and should be more to our political and security relationship than just that.

Those cooperative diplomatic exercises have in more recent years been given stronger institutional backup. The 2009 Joint Statement on Enhanced Global & Security Cooperation by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Lee Myung-bak resulted in an action plan embracing regular reciprocal ship and aircraft visits, enhanced bilateral exercises, inter-service and defence policy talks and military intelligence sharing -- arrangements now further spelt out in the 2015 Blueprint for Defence & Security Cooperation. Since 2013, very importantly, we have had in place 2+2 bilateral dialogue meetings with our foreign and defence ministers, the most recent of which was in December 2019.

And on a wider, plurilateral, front, we have also had since 2013 the establishment of the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia) group, initiated by South Korea to bring together a geographically diverse group of G20 members to informally consult and try to bridge divides on global issues like development, cyber and nuclear security, climate change and the environment. I think the kind of cooperative middle power diplomacy which MIKTA was designed to advance can be a very important force for peace and stability, and will come back to this point in more detail in a moment.

Korean Peninsula Diplomacy. The ROK’s central preoccupation will undoubtedly remain, as has been the case for years, the Korean peninsula. Here it remains very much to be seen whether we can translate this steadily growing and intensifying set of relationships into any meaningful role for Australia in future DPRK nuclear negotiations, We played a bit-part in the past – in the Agreed Framework negotiations, contributing to meeting the North’s energy needs, which was part of the hoped-for settlement – and could again in this way. We did participate in the investigation into the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, and could again contribute to international monitoring and verification processes that will clearly need to be part of any denuclearization settlement – or steps on the way like an agreed freeze on weapons and delivery system development, and fissile material production. But clearly when it comes to the negotiations themselves – if they can get seriously started again – we cannot expect to play anything more than a bystander role. The central players will of course be, apart from North and South Korea and the United States, China and to a lesser extent the other ‘Six Party Talks’ participants, Japan and Russia.

While President Trump’s summit diplomacy proved, as with so much else in his presidency, to be more circus than substance. I have always believed that a credible and sustainable nuclear deal is still doable with Pyongyang, as ugly and indifferent to normal ethical constraints as the regime undoubtedly continues to be. I think I share that position with the current ROK Government of President Moon Jae-in, but my colleague Moon Chung-in will be speaking on this panel in a moment with far more authority than me in that respect.

My perception remains, for what it’s worth, that Kim’s basic intentions are above all defensive rather than aggressive; that he is focused on regime survival, and knows that to be homicidal is to be suicidal; that he knows that he needs major economic progress to maintain his regime’s internal credibility; and that he genuinely wants the kind of military and diplomatic deal that will help make that possible. Although Kim is unlikely in the short to medium term to commit to anything more than a freeze on fissile material production and the development and testing of both weapons and delivery systems, it is not unimaginable that he could ultimately agree to full denuclearization – in the context of the long sought conclusion of the Korean War peace treaty, normalisation of diplomatic relations, and significant economic support.

What matters above all, if any progress is to be made, is the development over time of some genuine trust between the DPRK and its neighbours – and above all the US. While we all expect the new Biden administration to be more rational and principled than its predecessor, its rhetoric so far on North Korea has not shown much disposition to compromise, and it is a real question whether, if a softened Pyongyang position does become more apparent, and there are some serious step-gains on the table, albeit initially small, the US will be capable of taking yes for an answer.

Middle Power Diplomacy. While Australia cannot expect to be more than a bit-player on these North Korea issues, I am persuaded that there is a great deal we can and should be doing together with South Korea in the general area of middle power diplomacy.

‘Middle powers’ are best described as those states which are not economically or militarily big or strong enough, either in their own regions or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else – but which are nonetheless sufficiently capable, credible and motivated to be able to make an impact on international relations. There is no standard list of current middle powers, or any commonly agreed list of objective measures – like population size, GDP, or military budgets – distinguishing middle powers from others. But that list would certainly include Australia and the ROK, and the other members of the MIKTA group (Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey), as it would Canada and most of the Scandinavians.

A perhaps better, and not necessarily circular, way of identifying middle powers is to describe them as states which practice ‘middle power diplomacy’, which has a characteristic motivation and method. The characteristic motivation is belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in addressing international challenges, particularly those global or regional public goods problems which by their nature cannot be solved by any country acting alone, however big and powerful. And the characteristic diplomatic method is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ states – those who, whatever their prevailing value systems, share specific interests and are prepared to work together to do something about them.

The contributions middle powers, so acting, can make to better international relations include:

  • agenda setting: bringing new ideas to the table (which bigger players carrying too much baggage, or too stuck in their ways, to embrace – e.g. in our own region, the creation of APEC and ARF, and the Australia-Indonesia initiated peace plan for Cambodia)
  • bridge-building: between developed and developing countries (one of the major aspirations of MIKTA)
  • building critical masses of support for global or regional public goods, and rule-based international order, policy change (e.g. climate change; the responsibility to protect (‘R2P’) against mass atrocity crimes; and arms control treaties, like those abolishing cluster bombs and land mines, and also hopefully now nuclear weapons elimination – although some of the key middle powers are giving greater weight to being US allies than good global citizens).

How effective middle powers can be in making a difference depends on a number of factors, including:

  • resources: the need for a reasonably wide network of diplomatic posts, and officials with energy and stamina;
  • creativity: what middle powers lack in economic, political or military clout they can often make up for with quick diplomatic footwork: evident in the Asian region, e.g., again in creation of new security and economic architecture (APEC, ARF, EAS), and the Cambodia peace plan;
  • credibility: the need to avoid hypocrisy, by practising at home what they preach abroad, not least on human rights and democracy issues (where it has to said that, within MIKTA, Turkey is now particularly vulnerable).. Allies of great powers, like Australia, also have to be perceived as having some real independence – not just acting as a cipher or stalking horse for a protector; and
  • opportunity: while there have been many past examples in our region of effective middle power diplomacy, we have to recognise that in an Asian setting, where great or major power rivalry – above all now between China and the US, but also Japan and China, China and India, India and Pakistan – provides so much of the context and dynamics, the scope for middle powers to be really influential, on the big peace and security issues in particular, may be limited.

While recognising the reality of limited opportunity, let me offer nonetheless three examples where the middle powers of this region – very much including Australia and Korea, who are both capable of being leading players in this respect – could, in my judgement, have a significant impact.

First, in setting the agenda for the East Asian Summit, which -- although its potential has so far certainly not been fully realised -- has all the ingredients to become the preeminent regional dialogue and policy-making body, containing as it now does all the major regional players (including now the United States and Russia), meeting at leader-level, and mandated to address both economic and political issues. Its eighteen members include a majority of middle powers – most of the ASEANs, Australia and Korea (and New Zealand could also be so described, because of its tradition of multilateral activism).

Second, in visibly pushing back against excessive Chinese assertiveness and overreach, including in the South China Sea. While China manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of the historic, hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern, and perhaps eastern, neighbours as it can get away with, and a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying so much now on a United States that is still reluctant to stop asserting not just its presence but its primacy.

There has been much talk of the ‘Quad’ in this context –India, Australia, Japan and the United States showing a united front, diplomatically and to some extent militarily (with joint exercises and the like) – and I don’t oppose continuing to cautiously develop that cooperation. But I am rather more attracted, in this context, to developing a united front grouping which would harness the collective middle-power energy and capacity of a larger number of regional states of real regional substance (and not all of them necessarily democracies) – in which, for example, India, Australia and Japan would be joined by the ROK, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Third, some of us are in a position to influence the global nuclear weapons elimination debate, and should do more than we have. Had Australia and Korea (along with our larger neighbour Japan) been willing to support President Obama’s move toward a ‘No First Use’ commitment, the world might have taken a significant step toward reducing the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane and existentially threatening weapons ever invented (though the support of Central and Eastern Europe NATO allies would probably also have been necessary).

There is a big job to be done in bridging the gap between those who, on the one hand, will settle only for the kind of absolutism embodied in the Nuclear Ban Treaty, and on the other hand, the nuclear armed states and those sheltering under their protection who want essentially no movement at all on disarmament. Working for a meaningful and achievable half way house solution, with a credible – not incredible – road map towards ultimate elimination, is a task in which Australia and Korea can both be quintessentially important players.

Raw economic and political power will always count for a lot in international affairs. But it does not count for everything. Middle powers with a sense of where they want to go, and with the credibility, resources, and energy to follow through, can have a major impact in making this region and the wider world safer and saner. That is the challenge for both Korea and Australia, and I believe that by working ever more closely together to strengthen the many bonds we already share, we can deliver on it.