Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 20:37 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 20:37 | SYDNEY

Korea passing


Malcolm Cook

15 April 2008 09:09

Our lively discussion of the Rudd Government’s foreign policy and his first, unusually long, foreign trip have canvassed Japan’s, India’s and Southeast Asia's concerns about being 'passed', ignored or downgraded in Australia’s new worldview as an active 'creative middle power'. We have also discussed the idea of what a 'middle power' actually is (what is below the middle and what is above it, I wonder?).  Needless to say Japan, India and Indonesia are not middle powers (no comment on their diplomatic creativity). However, South Korea clearly is and it shares many common strategic interests and constraints with Australia. One is reminded of APEC, a crowning achievement of the last Labor government's creative middle power diplomacy: Prime Minister Hawke announced the idea of APEC in Seoul almost twenty years ago in January 1989; not in Tokyo or Jakarta and certainly not in Washington or Beijing.

Australia- South Korea relations have long suffered from a lack of sustained effort and focus from both sides. South Korea’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections have delivered a clear change of government in Seoul that is at least as important regionally as ours and has put a government in power that is likely to be more active and have interests more in line with Australia's. The fact this change has gone largely uncommented in Australia reflects this blind spot in our foreign policy. Clearly, to be a good creative middle power, Australia should work closely with other middle powers and not simply try to engage with the great powers.

The similarities in position and interests suggest much latent potential stoked but not realised in Seoul in the cold winter of 1989. Australia and South Korea are roughly the same size economically, and highly complementary. South Korea is our third largest export market  — we export a third more to South Korea than the US. Like Australia, South Korea is the smallest side of a strategic diamond with China, Japan and the US, and has to keep all of these relations in good stead. Finally, Australia and South Korea share the same goals of maintaining a strong alliance relationship with the US — South Korea sent many more troops to Iraq than we did — and developing regional organizations to help middle powers influence non-middle ones (APEC, the East Asia Summit). 

Australian foreign policy should of course focus on relations with major regional and global powers. To be truly creative and effective it should also focus on like-minded middle powers in East Asia that it has a history of cooperation with. It should focus more on South Korea. This is particularly true if Australia really is interested in the transformation of the Six-Party Talks into a regional security body that stretches to include Australia.