Korea and Australia: A healthy level of disinterest no more

It is a cliche to say that many Koreans think Australia is little more than a mine, a farm and a beach. Similarly, many Australians think Korea is little more than the home of kimchi, taekwondo, and occasionally, colorful parliamentary debate involving taekwondo.

The Korean cultural wave, Hallyu, which swept across Asia during the past decade, swamped Japan, flooded China, and inundated Southeast Asia. Yet it barely made a ripple in Australia. Ask an average Australian about the Korean cultural wave and they are likely to think it`s something to do at a football match.

Similarly, a simple search of Korean internet portals, such as Daum and Naver, demonstrate that "Australia" appears only in the context of koalas, kangaroos and English instruction. The picture of Australia in Korea, at least on the internet -- a fairly good indicator in Korea -- rarely goes beyond mines, farms, beaches -- and the study of English.

It could be said that Australians and Koreans share a healthy level of disinterest in each other`s country. Why healthy? Quite simply, this level of disinterest is the result of a flourishing, fulfilling and largely problem-free relationship. But there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Australia and Korea may be getting over this healthy level of disinterest.

A growing confluence of interest?

At nearly every forum where Australians and Koreans gather, there is an inevitable reference to the two countries` strong historical ties based on shared sacrifice in the Korean War. The number of Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought in defense of South Korea was 17,000. The number of Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen who never returned was 346.

Indeed, it is highly likely that Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith`s visit to during Dec. 15-16 would include another similar reference to our shared sacrifices. But Foreign Minister Smith has already demonstrated that he holds a more nuanced view of the Australia-Korea relationship. Speaking at the Korea Press Foundation in May 2008, during his last visit, Smith stated:

"Two hundred ant eighty-one Australians lie at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan. ... But as important as our historical ties are, we are even more closely linked today through the confluence in the way we see each other, the world and our aspirations for the future of our region."

This forward looking view reflects an emerging trend in Australia-Korea relations, which seeks to build upon the shared values and interests of two very natural middle-power partners.

In terms of politics, Australia and Korea share core values of democracy, freedom, the rule of law and free markets. On the international scene Australia and Korea increasingly see these values place them together as they seek to have their voice heard amongst the major powers.

In terms of economics, Australia and Korea are natural complementary trade partners. In global terms, Australia and Korea are both middle-ranking economic powers, often sharing the same broad position in GDP ranking, which again places them together as they seek to have their voice heard in forums such as the G20, the WTO and the OECD.

In terms of security, Australia and Korea share interests in a stable, rules-based international order, freedom of navigation, the continued involvement of the United States in the region and the maintenance of a strong alliance relationship with the United States. Both countries are strong supporters of the United Nations system, which once again places them together as they support and seek to influence events at the United Nations.

In politics, economics and security, Australia and Korea are natural middle-power partners.

Bilateral issues

Australia and Korea enjoy a strong bilateral economic relationship. In 2008, Korea was Australia`s third-largest export destination and demonstrated year-on-year growth of 8.9 percent. The success of the relationship is a result of the high degree of trade complementarity. Australian raw materials, predominantly iron ore, coal, LNG (as well as sugar, beef and wheat) exported to Korea return in the form of finished goods, such as cars, telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics. Australia is essential as a reliable, proximate and stable supplier of raw materials to the Korean economy.

However, there remains substantial potential to widen the relationship, including in the areas of investment, legal and financial services, energy, building and construction, media services, seafood and wine. The two countries are attempting to address this through the negotiation of a comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement.

In April 2008, the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy completed a study of the merits of an FTA between the two economies, estimating that an FTA could contribute up to $22.7 billion to Australia`s GDP, and up to $29.6 billion to Korea`s GDP, in the period 2007-2020.

However, the figures do not reveal the whole picture. FTAs inevitably have a "head turning" effect, which if handled effectively, can serve as an excellent trade promotion tool, benefiting those already exporting to the market and attracting new exporters to the market. FTAs provide greater strategic direction in an economic relationship as a result of the increased policy and academic attention. This head turning effect could even help end the "healthy level of disinterest" that pervades the Australia-Korea relationship.

Negotiations towards an FTA commenced in May 2009. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, the thirrd round of FTA negotiations were held in Canberra, Australia. While negotiations have been difficult, progress is being made at both the working level and at the political level, and would likely be further progressed with the visit of Foreign Minister Smith.

The big issues

The Australian foreign minister`s visit was also scheduled to include discussions on topics that may prove to be much more significant to Australia and South Korea`s positions as middle-powers in the Asian region.

In June 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia would seek to encourage the development of an "Asia-Pacific Community" by the year 2020. Since that time, Australia has actively sought views and encouraged debate on the existing regional architecture. The aim of creating an Asia-Pacific Community derives from the sorry state of existing regional architecture.

The political, economic and security architecture of the East Asian region is disparate, uncoordinated and weak. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is increasingly unwieldy; ASEAN Plus Three excludes important regional players and lacks a strong institutional framework; and the East Asia Summit (EAS) remains mired in regional uncertainty about its purpose, place and position. This situation will be detrimental to Australia and Korea in the long-term.

As middle-powers, Australia and Korea benefit from a rules-based international order. They benefit from institutions that allow them to coordinate and cooperate with like-minded states. Coalition building within an international institution increases the voice of middle-powers and increases their ability to influence major powers.

By coordinating an approach to the development of the regional political, economic and security architecture, Australia and Korea could not only ensure their voice in the region continues to be heard but ensure that it is highly influential. Indeed, the two countries have a history of working closely in the development of regional architecture. During the late 1980s, Prime Minister Bob Hawke and President Roh Tae-woo coordinated on the creation of APEC, which was at the time an important institution to both countries. The early success of APEC demonstrated that close coordination between Australia and Korea could substantially increase the diplomatic capacity of both countries.

But South Korea is yet to demonstrate support for the development of an Asia-Pacific Community. One reason for this may be the more imminent presence of the G20. In 2010 Korea will host the G20. The significance of this has been widely publicized in Korea. The G20 will turn the eyes of the world to Korea, partially fulfilling the aims of a "Global Korea" as expressed in the Lee Myung-Bak administration`s Foreign Policy and National Security Vision released in June 2009.

While on the surface, they may seem different, the G20 and the proposal for an Asia-Pacific Community are ultimately very similar. Both provide the means for middle-powers to increase their voice in diplomatic affairs. Coordination and cooperation between Australia and Korea in both the G20 and in the development of an Asia-Pacific community could once again prove the importance of middle-power diplomacy to both countries.

The growing confluence of interests between Australia and Korea both regionally and globally, mean that the days of a healthy level of disinterest between Australia and Korea may be numbered.

"Korea and Australia: A healthy level of disinterest no more", Korea Herald, 17 December 2009.