Minilateral Australia-Korea: a win-win potential

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The Australia-Korea relationship is in its sixtieth year, and although trade, historical and strategic ties are strong, security cooperation is less advanced. Earlier this year, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall, the two countries agreed in principle to elevate their relationship to “comprehensive strategic partnership” status, ranking just below the Australia-Japan special strategic partnership. But, for the relationship to be qualified as “global”, it must put the security pillar of its commitment at the same level as its other aspects.

Last month, Australia and Korea held their fifth Foreign and Defense Ministers’ Meeting (2 + 2) in Seoul. The meeting advanced relations in important areas, outlined in a lengthy joint statement. They agreed to: “increase” joint defense exercises, training, stopovers and aircraft tours; cooperate within the framework of a new memorandum of understanding on cybertechnologies and critical technologies; take over a defense industry committee; and support Korea’s future inclusion in the bilateral Australian-US military exercise Talisman Saber. It is clear that progress in security cooperation is occurring, but at a gradual pace.

The United States may not be the best third party to engage, as trilateral defense cooperation could provoke China and ultimately deter Seoul.

The reasons for the gradual drift are well understood by relationship stewards and stakeholders. Out of necessity, Korea has focused on containing North Korea and navigating complex relations with China, while Australia has prioritized security cooperation with the Five Eyes countries, Japan, Indonesia and, increasingly, India. Within these parameters, compelling arguments have been made for closer security cooperation between Australia and Korea, including through a visiting forces agreement and capability acquisition, d ” closer collaboration with the defense industry, realignment of strategic perspectives and collective maritime operations. Adding new suggestions to the stack is unlikely to pay off without changes in the structure of the relationship.

One potential breakthrough opportunity is minilateral security cooperation.

An important development of the 2 + 2 meeting was the focus on a recently agreed Australia-Korea-US trilateral framework on defense science research and development. Strengthening cooperation through a shared ally seems a logical step, especially when the Australia-US-Japan Strategic Dialogue has been such a useful forum and has mutually strengthened these relations. However, progress in trilateral science and technology (S&T) cooperation is likely to be slow. Substantial scientific and technological cooperation requires the negotiation of various legal instruments and the development of trust between researchers over several years. The inflexibility of US defense export permits and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARS) could also delay the process.

Compelling arguments have been made for closer security cooperation between Australia and Korea. President Moon Jae-in visits Gangwon-do Province and the DMZ Peace Trail in Goseong-gun, April 26, 2019 (Republic of Korea / Flickr)

S&T cooperation would ideally be the precursor to a broader trilateral strategic relationship. However, the United States may not be the best third party to engage, as trilateral defense cooperation could provoke China and ultimately deter Seoul. In addition, the United States could play a leading role in the minilateral, rather than equally advanced negotiations between members of similar size.

For a broader collective arrangement, Australia and Korea might instead consider working with other middle powers through minilateral arrangements in non-traditional and less complex legally and technically demanding security areas. India and Indonesia are a priority for Canberra, but also for Korea through its “New Southern” policy. These countries represent other influential democratic nations, and India has shown its willingness to engage in minilateralism through the Quad framework.

With Korea excluded from the Quad and several “thorny strategic and diplomatic challenges” currently hampering Seoul’s membership, a Korea-India-Australia deal could perhaps be explored.

What would a Korea-India-Australia (KIA) co-operate on? The obvious starting point is strategic dialogue, progressing towards practical cooperation in areas such as health and cybersecurity, improving democratic practices by combating disinformation, counterterrorism and regional humanitarian response and in cases disaster. The recent Australia-Korea 2 + 2 meeting agreed on a new memorandum of understanding on cybersecurity and established a high-level political dialogue – and the two countries have already agreed to cooperate with India on cybersecurity. So, for cyber at least, there may soon be a platform from which to launch minilateral cooperation.

The argument can be made that security cooperation between Australia and Korea has not progressed as quickly as it should because it lacks an urgent strategic imperative.

Due to competing resource needs of existing minilaterals or the potential lack of political consensus and support, mineral cooperation between Australia, Korea and India may not be leveraged in the short term. But, if Canberra were willing to offer this privately, it would reflect continued efforts to invest more in these relationships in new and previously unexplored ways. In particular, it would send a message to Seoul that Australia values ​​cooperation with it outside of its relationship with the United States and in addition to individual engagement. It would also offer Korea an alternative to trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan – which is becoming more difficult for Seoul.

The argument can be made that security cooperation between Australia and Korea has not progressed as quickly as it should because it lacks an urgent strategic imperative. But, in the same way that the proverbial frog doesn’t notice it’s boiling, Indo-Pacific regional dynamics have steadily deteriorated – not only due to major power shifts, but also in terms of security challenges. non-traditional more acute. This increases the need for further security cooperation between Australia and Korea on common challenges, and has been at the origin of the Quad’s trilateral activities as well as Australia, US and from Japan.

With bilateral security cooperation between Australia and Korea not progressing fast enough and with tensions mounting in the Indo-Pacific, the time has come for the two countries to consider using minilateralism in as part of their security cooperation toolkit.


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