His Excellency Mr Baeksoon Lee: A Reflection on Australia-South Korea Relations

25 May 2020
By Gemma King
His Excellency Mr Baeksoon Lee: A Reflection on Australia-South Korea Relations
On Thursday 21 May, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted His Excellency Mr Baeksoon Lee, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea (RoK) to Australia for an online private dialogue, convened under Chatham House Rule. The Centre was pleased to have Ambassador Lee reflect on his distinguished tenure in Australia and to discuss key issues of interest in the Australia-South Korea relationship before returning to Seoul.

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The roundtable discussion emphasised the like-mindedness of Australia and the RoK, and explored the potential for the two countries to advance their bilateral relationship. Australia and the RoK are natural partners who have the opportunity to utilise diplomacy to enhance ties. The two countries’ successful handling of COVID-19 provides opportunities for cooperation in middle power leadership.
 
Although President Moon Jae-in’s scheduled visit to Australia this year was cancelled, President Moon and Prime Minister Scott Morrison will hold a virtual meeting. This will be an opportune time to upgrade bilateral engagement to strengthen economic, material and defence cooperation.
 
Discussion addressed the capacity of Australia and the RoK to work together in multilateral forums. Particular emphasis was placed on MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia), an informal grouping born on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2013. MITKA first emerged as a new form of middle power activism with a surge of activity, however it has become less active over time. As the US and China appear to be cherry picking their compliance to international norms, it is increasingly important for middle powers to emerge as leaders in advocating for and upholding a rules-based order.
 
The Australian and RoK foreign ministers played a vital role in championing the establishment of MITKA. As such, Australia and South Korea can once again cooperate in reinvigorating the grouping. As both China and the US have faced significant challenges in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries may turn away from these two global leaders as a model for recovery. Australia and the RoK are examples of an effective COVID-19 response, and there is potential for the two to work together within MITKA to emerge as leaders in modelling successful management of COVID-19.
 
Reviving MITKA will not be without barriers, however, as Turkey has shown no solid aspirations towards its involvement in MITKA. It was noted that in order to bring MITKA back to life, member countries need to think about what the next phase of the grouping will look like, and how the middle powers can work collectively to execute a shared agenda based on common values. Furthermore, the countries will need to improve solidarity between members, extend outreach to developing countries, and upgrade consultation from the foreign minister level to head of state level.
 
It was discussed that the RoK can play a greater role in infrastructure development to aid in closing the infrastructure gap in the Indo-Pacific. Under President Moon Jae-in, the RoK launched its New Southern Policy, which aims to elevate ties with ASEAN member states. This has seen companies show an increased interest in investment in infrastructure development in these countries, most notably in Vietnam and the Philippines.
 
Economically, the RoK provides an attractive alternative as Australia seeks to diversify its markets in the face of heightened trade tensions. It provides an attractive and reliable market for Australia to import goods. Korean small and medium sized businesses in Australia have benefited under COVID-19 as Australian consumers are using home and online shopping to purchase Korean manufactured goods.
 
Within the energy sector, the bilateral relationship is particularly strong. As the RoK emerges as a world leader in green technology through its hydrogen energy revolution, there are opportunities for Australia to cooperate on energy development to come up with new cost-effective types of hydrogen energy.
 
As great power competition intensifies and the US and China struggle to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the time is nigh for middle powers to emerge as leaders in norm setting. Australia and the RoK are natural partners who can work together to enhance middle power leadership, and have opportunities to enhance bilateral relations both diplomatically and economically.
 

Authors

Gemma King
Gemma King
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