Future Focused: an underdeveloped regional alliance
Since 1945, Australia has shown a consistent and fierce tendency to align with the United States; after all, why wouldn’t we? Under the world’s most significant and advanced military umbrella and with close financial connections to the world’s largest economy, Australia has blossomed. Today we possess a prosperous and stable economy that entices overseas investment, especially from the US, witnessed a world-leading thirty year streak without a recession that was only ended by the onset of COVID-19, and have a crucial security relationship that reduces our historical fear of isolationism. As a result, Australia has developed a voice within the Indo-Pacific region and serves as a hub from which the US seeks to ensure the continuation of their rules-based order.
The benefits Australia has inherited from Washington, being our ‘great and powerful friend’ are indisputable. However, such interconnectedness has also served to distance us from like-minded partners in our region. Being a middle power in any region is challenging, however in the contemporary Indo-Pacific it is particularly unenviable. The great power competition that exists between the US and China, and the ramifications for Australia siding with the US so vehemently over the past year, have further contributed to a feeling of isolation within our own backyard. As a result of our strict adherence to US policy and political ties, our ability to interact with those states in our periphery and affect change – much less lead – within our region has been compromised. Against the backdrop of the US having its international image tarnished again by the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Australia signing the AUKUS pact, it is now time to consider loosening one hand of our grip on Uncle Sam and engaging with other regional partners with whom we share common characteristics and strategic interests.
An underdeveloped regional alliance
There are multiple states within the Indo-Pacific with whom Australia has an underdeveloped political relationship. However, complications concerning relations with China, differing political systems, and a lack of shared values will continue to limit progress with many of our regional neighbours. When considering potential regional partners, Australia’s attention should turn to those with whom we share a common strategic alliance with the US, an interest in preserving the rules-based order, and upholding democratic tendencies. When applying this test, South Korea offers a particularly attractive opportunity for Australia.
2021 marks the sixtieth anniversary of relations between South Korea and Australia. This milestone should be one of celebration, but also of future planning. There has long been reinforced impetus for closer collaboration between the two states, but now is the time to capitalise on creating true regional influence and stability. While there is some contestation over whether a common strategic outlook exists between Canberra and Seoul, there is no question that they share overlapping economic, political and military interests. Australia must focus on these specific areas where the two can deliver mutually beneficial outcomes. This is particularly important today given the omnipresent rise of China and its increasingly assertive foreign policies. There is a need in both Canberra and Seoul to guard against the power-based international order being driven by Beijing. Collaboration to meet this challenge is most likely to be facilitated in defence and economic sectors.
The most likely sector of cooperation between Australia and South Korea in the immediate term is that of defence. Historically, South Korea has been wary of Australia’s propensity to choose alternate military providers, particularly from Germany, over Korean manufacturers. However, recent progress has been promising. South Korea’s Hanwha Group was selected as the preferred bidder for the LAND811 project in September 2020, budgeted at around AUD$1 billion. This commitment from the Department of Defence (DoD) follows the aims set forward by the Defence Science and Technology Strategy 2030, where future contracts would be expanded beyond traditional European partners to those in the local region. The LAND811 project is promising, yet more progress is necessary. The path to further collaboration can be facilitated as soon as this year, should the Hanwha Group be awarded the far greater LAND400 project, valued at AUD$18 billion, over the German group Rheinmetall. The LAND400 project would affirm the DoD’s strategy and be foundational in expanding bilateral defence industry cooperation between Canberra and Seoul. Flourishing defence ties would be conducive to more cohesive collaboration between the two middle powers, whilst also facilitating closer cooperation in other sectors of the bilateral relationship. We live in an era of vast and often unforeseen change. Given the ongoing strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific, it is vital that Australia and South Korea plan for opportunities particularly because of their expertise in manufacturing military equipment (through the Hanwha Group), compared to other regional partners.
The renewable energy sector stands as another vital avenue for collaboration between the two states that has so far been underutilised. As we shift into an international society driven by sustainable energy solutions, Australia must step out from under the umbrella of fossil fuels and consider alternative energy avenues. While Australia has abundant natural resources that have powered its economic growth over the past two decades, it also possesses significant potential to thrive in an era of renewable energy. South Korea is a like-minded partner in this effort to deliver a carbon-free future and promote a shift to green energy. South Korea has demonstrated this commitment by adopting a target of net-zero by 2050 and with an ambitious private sector striving towards carbon neutrality. Despite such a promising relationship, however, Australia has fallen behind other western democracies by not making similar commitments. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have been steadfast in their refusal to commit to carbon neutrality, yet the issue may be one of timeframe rather than the overarching objective. Given our abundance of fossil fuel resources, the political power of multinational mining conglomerates and the economic benefit they provide to the Australian economy, it is understandable - albeit dismaying - that a commitment has not been made. As climate change continues to be a 'hot topic' in diplomatic and political circles internationally, Australia could be risking a significant opportunity with South Korea in working towards reducing carbon emissions by not committing to net-zero.
South Korea shares a similar challenge. The current trade relationship between the two states is grounded in fossil fuels, with Australia’s top two exports to South Korea being iron ore and coal, powering South Korea’s industrialisation. However, unlike Australia, South Korea has pursued carbon neutrality. President Moon Jae-in committed the country to carbon neutrality by 2050 in December 2020. The Korean New Deal Task Force was also created in 2020, consisting of the ‘Green New Deal’ which addresses renewable energy, green infrastructure and the industrial sector. While the lasting effects of the New Deal will not be evident for years, Seoul’s shift is promising. At the G7 meeting in June, Jae-in and Morrison agreed to broaden bilateral economic ties in the hydrogen and low-carbon technology sector. Given Australia’s comparative advantage in energy production and South Korea’s specialisation in advanced technologies, there has never been a more promising time for closer energy cooperation between the two states. Australia’s commitment to a green future would go a long way in catalysing progress, despite action being overlooked as a result of an impending election season and surging COVID-19 cases in Sydney and Melbourne.
The question now arises as to what Australia’s immediate foreign policy priorities are and to what extent Canberra is willing to collaborate with regional partners. Australia has the tools to step up its relations with South Korea even beyond moving to a “comprehensive partnership” that both Morrison and Jae-In have endorsed. With closer relations, comes the continued need to overcome generic rhetoric and commit to extensive collaboration in future-focused sectors. Recent progress in defence gives cause for optimism; however, only time will tell how far such outreach will take us. South Korea has a relative advantage in producing our army’s equipment and our economies are well suited to delivering a carbon responsible future together. These sectors stand as pillars for the relations between the two nations to flourish and act as a source of ‘minilateralism’ in the Indo-Pacific. For this to be possible, Australia must first make the courageous step of leaving Washington’s side. Like the first day of school: it’s never going to be easy, and we don’t have to go out of sight, but if we choose to, we will be better off.
Daniel Whitehurst is a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne, previously completing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Western Australia. He is currently an intern in the diplomacy department at Asialink and is particularly interested in the prospects of middle-power collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.