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A better rules-based order: What Australia and Korea can do together

Launch of Asialink/Korea Foundation Report, Challenges to the Rules-Based Order: Agendas for Australia-ROK Cooperation, Australian National University, Canberra, 2 May 2023

This new Asialink/Korea Foundation report quotes me as saying, five years ago, that “Australia-South Korea relations, while strong, have never quite reached their potential”. Disappointingly, I think we have to acknowledge that is still rather the case. But what this report aims to show is how much more ballast could be added to our relationship, with wider international returns generated in the process. This would come from focusing not just on the traditional bilateral agenda of trade, tourism, technology, defence liaison and people-to-people links generally, but the multilateral dimension of our relationship – working cooperatively, together and with others, to strengthen, both regionally and globally, the Rules-Based Order.

The report’s conclusions rest on three foundational premises. First, that the Rules Based Order it describes is worth defending and strengthening. Second, that Australia and the ROK have a distinctive inherent capacity to make a contribution to this objective as capable middle-powers. And third, that a number of practical cooperative strategies can be identified that would make that positive contribution a reality.

There is plenty of room for debate about the credibility of each of these propositions, and their detailed content (including the risks or rewards involved in using ‘Indo-Pacific’ rather than ‘Asia-Pacific’ terminology) – and I look forward to that debate starting in the panel discussion which will follow. But I think it is fair to say that all three foundational premises stand up pretty well to scrutiny.

Rules-Based Order

If the current global and regional RBO is viewed as a Western construct with unchangeable pillars, whose primary beneficiaries have been and will continue to be Western capitalist powers with advanced military capabilities, it will go on having many detractors, and can expect to have a limited shelf-life.

But the RBO assumes a different, and much more universally attractive, light if described, as it is in this report, as “a cumulation of treaties, norms and institutions” that involve “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules that evolve over time, such as international law, regional security arrangements, trade agreements, immigration protocols and cultural arrangements”.

It is hard to argue that the kind of RBO so described, which we have had for most of the post World War II years, has not been of benefit to everyone, not least China in its Deng Xiaoping-led years of dramatic rise. But it will only remain so if it evolves to reflect contemporary realities – as the report puts it, developing as “a more open and inclusive RBO – one that reflects the interests of all stakeholders, promotes respect for the RBO, and assists the transition to a multipolar world”.

A world with which remains essentially unipolar in its foundations, as rather too many primacy-obsessed US policymakers, and those of its allies and partners who travel with them, would like it to be – a world in which China, for one, is expected to remain comfortable being a rule-taker rather than a contributing rule-maker – will be a world with its RBO headed essentially for a dead end. What we should be looking for, rather, is a world in which, as I heard Bill Clinton privately describe it in 2002, and I have often quoted him since, the US “will be comfortable living when it is no longer top dog on the global block”.

The task, in the new world we are facing, is not to accept a minimalist, lowest common denominator RBO, but to move creatively to develop treaties, norms and institutions which, in effect, fully reflect and respect the principles of the UN Charter, with its three great interlocking goals of peace, development and human rights. This is the kind of RBO which I take this report to be advocating, and it is certainly one which both Australia and the ROK, as capable middle powers, are well poised to help create and maintain.

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 South Korea, and the other members of the MIKTA group (Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey), as it would Canada and most of the Scandinavians.

Another, 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.

Both Australia and the ROK have waxed and waned over the years in the extent to which, under different governments, we have effectively practised that kind of proactive diplomacy, with a high point for both of us being the early-mid 1990s when, as the report describes, we worked closely together on regional economic and security institution-building. But it is fair to say, as the report also does in its excellent analysis of both countries’ foreign policy traditions, that – while both of us have long been alike in our preoccupation with maintaining what we have both hoped are our protective alliances with the U.S. – Australia has also been rather more often focused on global and regional objective pursued through multilateral diplomacy, while the ROK’s overwhelming focus most of the time has been on its North East Asian security environment.

‘Indo-Pacific’ as a Basis for Strategic Alignment?

Looking to the future, as this report does, there is not much doubt about the capability of each of us, diplomatically and otherwise, to make a difference. But a real question remains as to whether there is enough genuine commonality in our respective outlooks to make it possible for us to work effectively together as middle powers in helping evolve a newly fit for purpose RBO. The report suggests that some of the most important potential glue here may be our common willingness to embrace the idea of our region as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ rather than the ‘Asia-Pacific’ – terminology which has been accepted without much fuss on both sides of Australian politics since 2016, but only very recently, and with much more partisan discord, in the ROK.

A lot depends in this debate on how much baggage, and subtext, one sees the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept as bringing with it. If one takes it as simply recognising the reality that India – which largely excluded itself from engagement with the building of the Asia-Pacific institutions as we now know them – is now really a major player, actually and potentially, both in security and economic terms, in this whole space, it is hard to argue with conceptualising the region more broadly. Similarly, if one accepts, as I have always been inclined to, that ‘Indo-Pacific’ is not just a maritime but a land-based construct, embracing the whole of continental Asia (and very much including the Korean Peninsula). And from an Australian perspective (and I would have thought Indonesian too), straddling both oceans as we do, there is the attraction of being geographically at the fulcrum of the region as defined, rather than its margin – without this taking skin off anyone else’s nose.

But, on the other hand, if one gives weight to some other considerations, as the present Opposition in Korea and a number of respected thinkers in Australia do, there is ground for arguing that Indo-Pacific language will hinder rather than help the evolution of a fully consensual, inclusive, RBO. There is a concern that the Japan-inspired terminology of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, with its implied enthusiasm for electoral democracy and unrestricted markets, is designed to isolate rather than include China. And the argument is that so too will the military arrangements enthusiastically supported by the US – above all the Quad, but to some extent also AUKUS – which have been portrayed as institutionally synonymous with the Indo-Pacific. There is also some lingering concern in ASEAN that too enthusiastic an embrace of the Indo-Pacific label will undermine over time acceptance of the central role its members negotiated for themselves in the building of the Asia-Pacific institutions.

If we can all accommodate ourselves to thinking of the Indo-Pacific as a rational conceptual accommodation to new economic and diplomatic realities, not carrying with it an obsessive preoccupation with maritime security, inherent antagonism to China or embrace of American primacy in perpetuity – and this is the flavour of this report – then I think it is an appropriate foundation, just as ‘Asia-Pacific’ has always been, for Australia-ROK middle power cooperation in developing an improved and sustainable RBO. But that’s a large call, and one that may require rather more debate before we can confidently make it.

Agendas for Cooperation

As to how our two countries might operationalise that middle power cooperation in this context, the last section of the report focuses on three specific agendas – going to the global and regional economic and trading order, nuclear risk reduction, and engagement with ASEAN. All of which make perfect sense, although I would want to add to the mix a few qualifications and observations of my own, for present purposes necessarily abbreviated. Three thoughts in particular:

One: it remains imperative, both in our own national interests and in the interest of being able to contribute to a sustainable new RBO, for each of us to maintain some distance from both the giants in our region. While the instinct of both our present governments, in the present volatile global and regional environment, is to double down on the U.S. alliance, that doesn’t mean following Washington down every security and economic trail it might want to lead us, too many of which have been misguided in the past. It does not mean buying the argument that our security depends on the U.S. remaining not just a balancing power but undisputed top dog in our region and everywhere else. And it must not mean sacrificing our sovereign agency – as I fear Australia may be at risk of doing with our AUKUS submarine deal.

It is equally important that, notwithstanding the extent of our economic dependence on China, our countries not be sucked uncritically into Beijing's orbit. We should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values and continue to be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches externally, as it has in the South China Sea. The task for both Seoul and Canberra, as for others in the region, is to both get along with China ― because we have to ― but also stand up to its excesses. Not an easy balance to strike, but as a U.K. politician once famously put it, "If you can't ride two horses at once, you've no right to be in the bloody circus!"

Two: in relation to nuclear weapons, and fully understanding the ROK’s preoccupation with North Korea’s ever-increasing capability in this respect, I do think it is critical for both of us in our collaborative diplomacy – and the report could have made this point a little more strongly – to focus just as much on disarmament as on non-proliferation. While the good news out of last week’s Biden-Yoon summit is that Seoul has retreated from its latest flirtation with acquiring a nuclear weapons capability of its own, the less good news is that both sides have doubled down on the virtues of nuclear deterrence, with neither side showing any sign of getting serious about a really substantive risk reduction agenda, which I for one have long argued should start with a doctrinal commitment to ‘No First Use”. Australia needs to be more proactive than we have been in recent years in advancing that agenda, and I hope we can persuade the ROK to join us. As the Canberra Commission, and others since, have persuasively articulated it: so long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a real risk of them being used – by accident or miscalculation even if not deliberately – and any such use poses an existential risk to life on this planet as we know it.

Three: I think there is a case to be made for conceptualising the kind of enhanced cooperation this report calls for in terms of three slightly differently described agendas – what I would be inclined to call, respectively, Cooperating for Peace, Cooperating for Prosperity (the elements of both of which can be clearly enough gathered up from the present text) and, additionally, Cooperating for Decency (the content of which is only glancingly addressed in the report, and not in these terms). This last point is one that I have been arguing for decades in a national context, but is easy to scale up: there is a moral imperative for every country with a capacity to do so to address – even in far-away places where such action may produce little or no direct or immediate national security or economic return – poverty, conflicts, human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation and other human security problems. The clincher, I have always thought, is that being and being seen to be a good international citizen in this way is not just a moral but a national interest imperative for any country so acting: it generates real and measurable returns, not least reputationally – the kind we have come to think of as ‘soft power’.

In the present context, the argument is that the more such behaviour – like exercising a responsibility to protect populations against mass atrocity crimes – becomes the subject of accepted global or regional norms, the more the RBO will be enhanced, and that this is an area where Australia and Korea should find it both possible and attractive to act like-mindedly. The report mentions good international citizenship in passing, but this is a theme which I think could usefully be further developed.

But these are all just small quibbles, or points for further debate. My last word is simply this: this report is a credit to Asialink and the Korea Foundation, well-researched, well-argued, well-written and well-presented by its writing and editorial team – Lauren Richardson, Tony Milner and Don Greenlees. It will make an important continuing contribution to the policy debate, and I am delighted to declare it duly launched.

This presentation was published in Asialink Insights on 3 May 2023