By Kyle Springer on 16 June 2021

South-East Asia | International Relations


On Wednesday 30 June, the Perth USAsia Centre held a public webinar to launch Kyle Springer’s recent publication: Peers not Partners? Towards a Deeper Korea-Australia Partnership. This report followed a series of workshops hosted by the Perth USAsia Centre in collaboration with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and was supported by a grant from the Australia-Korea Foundation through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Read the publication (English version)

Read the publication (Korean version)

Panelists included Professor Gordon Flake and Ms Hayley Channer from the Perth USAsia Centre, as well as Dr Jaehyon Lee from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and Dr Kyungjin Song, Director of the Innovative Economy Forum. The panel discussion was moderated by Kyle Springer, author of the publication. The webinar covered the current state of Korea-Australia relations, the potential benefits to bilateral cooperation, perceived obstacles to this cooperation and ways Korea and Australia can deepen their relationship.

The 60th anniversary of Korea-Australia diplomatic relations and the Korea-Australia Summit in early June have led to a renewal of excitement concerning Korea-Australia relations. Current issues such as supply chain security, environmental sustainability and COVID-19 response have also resulted in a growing appreciation of what Australia and Korea can do together.

Furthermore, Australia and Korea share a number of characteristics, both countries being democracies with fair and free elections, both being treaty allies with the United States, and both among the top 15 economies globally. However, current interactions between Australia and Korea tend to operate at the “peer” level, through regional and global institutions rather than bilaterally.

Currently, Korea’s foreign engagement in the Indo-Pacific region is led by its New Southern Policy (NSP), which does not include a focus on Australia. With the Korean presidential election next year, there is hope that the next president will be more global-minded and inclusive of Australia in their foreign policy. However, Dr Jaehyon Lee said that rather than waiting for a Korean president who acknowledges Australia’s importance, Australia and Korea can forge stronger ties now through 1.5 track dialogues. The Track 2 elements in these will sustain momentum beyond the terms of governmental leaders and form a more enduring basis for bilateral cooperation.

Dr Kyungjin Song spoke about the great potential for Korea-Australia cooperation, including filling the infrastructure investment gap in the Indo-Pacific region and ensuring that this investment is aligned with the rules-based order. Both countries are founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and their voting powers can lead the AIIB to act in a more transparent and accountable manner. Dr Kyungjin Song also stated that Australia should encourage Korea to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). CPTPP member states already comprise a large proportion of Korea’s trade, so joining the agreement would reap further economic benefits for Korea.

Hayley Channer spoke on increasing security cooperation between Australia and Korea in the face of growing conflict and coercion in the region. Two specific areas mentioned were increased cooperation in defence procurement and establishing a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). This would increase trust between the two countries and enable Australia to provide greater assistance to the Korean Peninsula.

One common concern related to Australia-Korea cooperation is the existing tension between Korea and Japan. However, Professor Flake argued that Australia’s partnership with Japan is not likely to be an impediment to Korea-Australia relations, and that Japan would have nothing to gain from attempting to block such bilateral relations. Furthermore, Dr Song said that Australia-Korea cooperation might instead work towards alleviating Korea-Japan tensions. If Australia could persuade Korea to join the CPTPP, of which Japan is a member, this would bring Korea and Japan closer together through the CPTPP framework.

Professor Flake stated that many countries in the Indo-Pacific want to see Korea taking a more proactive role in the region as a way of countering China’s influence. However, it is precisely this balance with China which causes Korea to be hesitant. Professor Flake argued that Korea could not “see the forest for the trees”, too often fixated on large powers such as the United States and China and unable to envision the wider international system.

The panelists also spoke about potential cooperation between South Korea and the Quad. Ms Channer acknowledged that the Quad’s reputation for being anti-China may deter Korean involvement, but noted that as long as cooperation is portrayed in a multilateral way, rather than as a “Quad plus” initiative, there are many areas in which the five countries can cooperate. Professor Flake added that there is no issue on the recent Quad agenda for which Korea is not relevant and influential.

All the panelists expressed optimism for further cooperation in the future and underlined the importance of strengthening Korea-Australia relations. The many common interests which Korea and Australia hold in the region emphasise the benefits of elevating Korea-Australia relations to become partners, rather than just peers.