Australia should learn from Korea on managing a relationship with China

Sep 17, 2021
marise payne peter dutton
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton. (Image: Facebook)

China was the elephant in the room for the discussions Marise Payne and Peter Dutton had with their Korean counterparts in Seoul. Korea’s extremely complex bilateral relationship with China is so different from our own.

The visit to Seoul by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton earlier this week was a welcome recognition of the importance which Australia should be attaching to its bilateral relationship with the Republic of Korea (ROK)as this year celebrated the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The breadth and depth of the bilateral relationship continues to gather impressive pace but needs to be reinforced by closer cooperation between the two governments — as was recognised in a discussion which Prime Minister Scott Morrison had with President Moon Jae-in on the side of the last G7 meeting which both observed as special guests.

That the ministers had visited Indonesia and India prior to the ROK and were then going on to Washington for the annual AUSMIN discussions in advance of the Quad summit gave it added significance.

In their media comments before and along the way they sought to impart the impression that the principal goal of the Asian sector was to strengthen the resolve of their hosts to support US-led moves to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.

In India this extended to reinforcing the Quad arrangements prior to the summit, while in Seoul it was to promote an ROK interest in joining the Quad.

Dutton set out his policy agenda in a major speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in which he argued strongly for greater Alliance cooperation in the face of what he described as a “regional environment far more complex and far less predictable than at any time since the Second World War”, and one in which the Chinese Communist Party had become “increasingly bellicose… increasingly coercive… driven by a zero-sum mentality”.

In parts, he went even further to remind the US of its “enduring” role in the Indo-Pacific and assert that “there is a clear opportunity to strengthen the US Force Posture Initiatives” in Australia. In an interesting acrobatic leap he stated in sentences following each other: “Further establish interoperability with our Alliance partner. And allow the Australian Defence Force to act with greater independence.”

The joint communique issued by the Australian and Korean ministers set out well there was plenty of substance in the relationship.

But the Koreans would have been in little doubt that for the Australian side the elephant in the room for the talks in Seoul would be clearly China and the Quad.

Likewise the Australian side should have been prepared for the Koreans to be meticulously careful to avoid any criticism of China or any enthusiasm for joining the Quad.

And so it proved to be as evidenced by the joint communiqué issued by the four ministers after the talks including a reference to the tired cliché of “like-mindedness” of the two countries — a phrase repeatedly used also by Dutton in his pre-departure speech.

As Bill Paterson (a former ambassador to the ROK) so eloquently noted in a recent Pearls and Irritations article, Australia and the ROK both have some serious bilateral issues (some common, some not) with China but they have strikingly different ways of managing them.

The irony of Dutton, in one of the brief video reports of the meeting, seeming to lecture them about the perfidy of China and the CCP will not have been lost on their Korean hosts.

No other country in the world has had to manage such a complex relationship with China for more than 500 years, through a bloody war, a lengthy armistice with the North which hinges much on China, some really serious trade issues (in which China has demonstrated earlier its use of economic coercion) to name but a few.

Australia could well learn much from the ROK on how to manage all this instead of tub thumping.

Recognising the complexity of the Korean situation is fundamental to understanding why the ROK remains so committed to taking a very different approach to China and also to the Quad.

At the risk of simplifying what is an incredibly complex ROK-China relationship there are several absolutely fundamental elements:

  • The ROK conviction that China is crucial to any peaceful settlement of the Korean peninsula problem;
  • The ROK economy is extremely dependent on its trade with China — despite its best efforts at diversification and a significant diminution of its investments there; and
  • Korean cultural heritage is fundamentally based on its Chinese roots.

Unsurprisingly that leads the ROK down a diametrically opposed path to the increasingly frantic Australian efforts to confront China.

Another critical issue for the ROK with the Quad is the currently tense relationship it has with Japan.

There are some reports subsequently that, in his meeting with President Joe Biden soon in Washington, Moon might offer to cooperate on a bilateral basis with Quad members in some specific areas like COVID-19 vaccines and climate change but steer well clear of issues which might bring it into conflict with China. It remains to be seen what Biden’s reaction might be.

While the communique registered the shared concern about the state of the region there was a conspicuous absence of any specific reference to China.

Also noteworthy was the replacement of the all too familiar “rules based international order“ wording with “in accordance with international law” favoured by the Chinese. It also contained an interestingly worded reference to each country’s alliance with the US:

“The ministers recognised the importance of our respective alliance relationships with the United States in contributing to our own national security, and that these relationships are part of a network of alliances and partnerships that underpin broader regional stability and prosperity. They emphasised their support for the United States’ deep and long-term commitment to the Indo-Pacific across economic, development, health, diplomatic, security and other domains.”

As if to underline the differences on China, Dutton remarked to the media after the meeting:

“We have obviously our own policies when it comes to China. I think that’s a very important point to make. And as part of these discussions, we put our perspectives and from Australia’s perspective, we have an experience and that’s a direct experience in terms of some of the behaviours that I’ve spoken about before.”

But there was much more going on in Korea in and around the Australian visit which probably contributed to the paucity of coverage it received in the local media:

  • A svelte Kim Jong-un attended a midnight DPRK spectacular which had serious North watchers speculating about the civilian nature of the parade as well as his health. Then a cruise missile test later followed by a few missile tests;
  • The announcement by the Korean Foreign Ministry of a visit to Seoul by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi which was “expected to serve as an important opportunity to strengthen high-level communication between Korea and China and seek future-oriented development of bilateral relations and the promotion of mutual substantive cooperation and friendly sentiment ahead of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries next year”;
  • The last minute cancellation of a visit to Busan by the British aircraft carrier “Queen Elizabeth” after exercising with the Korean navy at sea. The continuing Covid situation in the ROK was given as the reason but local media speculated that it was more to do with Chinese sensitivities; and
  • Korean media reported that a proposal to extend the Five Eyes arrangement to the ROK, India, Japan and Germany had been attached the annual US Defense Department budget in Senate hearings.

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