Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 14:07 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 14:07 | SYDNEY


Graeme Dobell

28 July 2010 10:51

On rare occasions it's necessary to hit the reset button on your most basic assumptions about a country's trajectory. The reset moment is not about the constant ups, downs and alarums of international affairs. The reset is the moment to acknowledge a change in the direction of a nation's fundamental drives.

A wonderful example has been the need to reset many of the assumptions about Indonesia embedded by the Suharto decades.

The Defence White Paper last year marked a formal reset in the way Australia's military planners think about Indonesia. The geography is constant, the military capabilities little changed; the reset was in the understanding of Indonesia's future course as a vibrant democracy. Happy times.

Indonesia is a positive reset. Fiji, unfortunately, is an example of a negative reset, where notions about its future have to take on a distinct khaki tinge. 

Michael Wesley's post on his Seoul visit has caused me to ponder the possibility of a reset on my view about South Korea's inexorable shift into China's orbit. Before the reset discussion, though, pause to enjoy Michael's reporting of the description of North Korea as China's 'rogue ally'. This is phrase-making to savour. Rogue ally is both elegant and exact.

The base working hypothesis about South Korea over the last decade is that it would be the ally that slowly drifted away from the US.

Japan’s trajectory is to become the Asian version of Britain, the island ally sitting beside the continent. Stretch the analogy further. If Japan plays the role of Britain, then South Korea becomes France – the US ally that seldom acts like an ally and often doesn't even talk like a friend.

Push any analogy too far, of course, and you fall over the cliff. France can play around and provoke the US because it is finally at peace with the old enemy, Germany. South Korea has to live with the schizophrenic brother with violent tendencies.

The US has made it much easier for Seoul to respond to China's gravitational pull. Washington's attention has been elsewhere. The inability of the US polity to sign off on the free trade deal the Bush administration negotiated with South Korea is a symptom of the wider problem. The US has been away, and China's soft power has been free to play.

There are some obvious problems with the theory of an inexorable shift from US ally to Chinese client. The biggest is the Korean character. Living next door to China has bred steel deep into the Korean soul, just as it has with Vietnam. Over the centuries, when China has been strong, Korea and Vietnam have come to accommodations with the giant. But they've never had to be happy about it.

With the US back in town and China refusing to lay a hand on North Korea, perhaps it's time to ponder a reset moment. The unprecedented joint visit to the DMZ by Secretary of State Clinton and Defence Secretary Gates was a powerful reminder to South Korea of US friendship. Check out this great news photo of Clinton and Gates standing on the line being eyeballed through the window by a North Korean soldier.

The significance of this image can be read in many ways. One interpretation might be that this is the moment when South Korea steps back from its drift towards China. Before hitting the reset button, though, ponder the role of leadership.

For all his problems since becoming president, Lee Myug-bak's leadership has achieved a marked turn towards the more traditional alliance ties with the US. The question is whether this is a change to the underlying trend line or merely the passing effect of a particular leader.

By the time Junichiro Koizumi completed his five years in office in Japan, I was poised to hit the reset button on my understanding of Japan's traditionally passive strategic and diplomatic trajectory. That was premature. Since Koizumi departed, Japan has turned over four prime ministers in less than five years, and the fifth leader isn't looking much better. No reset needed there.

In the Korean case, the direction of the trend line is now an issue for China as much as for South Korea.

If Beijing can do no better for Seoul than it has since the sinking of the Cheonan, we may be at the moment when China's gravitational pull has reached its limits, or even started to recede.

Photo by Flickr user snorski, used under a Creative Commons licence.