‘Australia, Korea kindred middle powers’

By Joel Lee

“Therefore increasing our strategic and defense cooperation is vital, especially given that we share so many similarities, such as respect for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the international law, as freely trading nations.”

  • Published : Oct 23, 2017 - 20:56
  • Updated : Oct 23, 2017 - 21:27

The recent “2+2” meeting of foreign and defense ministers of Australia and Korea demonstrated the strength of their bilateral strategic partnership, Australia’s top envoy to Korea said, noting the two middle powers increasingly face similar challenges in an uncertain global security landscape.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne and her counterpart Song Young-moo, held their third biannual dialogue in Seoul on Oct. 13, designed to discuss mutual interests and challenges in the regional and global arenas and bolster their policy coordination.

In a joint statement, the four ministers affirmed the strength of the two nations’ “partnership in the face of existing security threats and new and evolving regional and global challenges.” They expressed their unconditional disavowal of North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile brinksmanship, urging the communist nation to return to dialogue for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization.

According to Australian Ambassador to Korea James Choi, the event was a “highly symbolic” representation of the two governments’ close engagement and dialogue at the highest strategic level, where they enmesh foreign and defense policies together and coordinate their policy regimes. 

Australian Ambassador to Korea James Choi speaks to The Korea Herald at the Australian Embassy in Seoul on Oct. 20 about the recent 2+2 meeting between the foreign and defense ministers of the two countries. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Canberra has the ministerial-level 2+2 meetings with the United States, the United Kingdom, Korea, Japan, Germany and Indonesia, and a “3+3” meeting with Singapore involving foreign, defense and trade ministers. Seoul has the meeting with the US and Australia, and has launched a vice-ministerial dialogue with India in March. The Australia-Korea 2+2 meeting -- slated to be held in Australia for the fourth time in 2019 -- builds on their annual deputy minister-level strategic dialogue.

“Minister Bishop and Minister Payne mentioned in the post-meeting press conference that Australia stands side by side with South Korea in condemning and confronting the threats we both face from North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program,” Choi told The Korea Herald at the embassy last week, adding Pyongyang’s nuclear ambition poses a “grave threat” to regional and global security.

“My foreign minister made clear that we stand together with the international community in fully implementing all sanctions resolutions by the United Nations Security Council. We are putting up a peaceful pressure campaign with Seoul, Washington and all major partners around the world, so that Pyongyang would give up its nuclear and missile provocations and return to the negotiable table.”

Canberra has implemented all North Korea-related UNSC sanctions, most recently resolutions 2371 and 2375 on Aug. 5 and Sept. 11, respectively, which restrict the purchase of North Korea’s main export items -- coal, iron, lead and seafood -- and cut off over 55 percent of refined petroleum products flowing into the cash-strapped nation.

In addition, Australia has adopted autonomous sanctions, listing all individuals and entities subject to sanctions and blocking their finance and trade links, a move beyond what the UNSC requested, Choi stressed. 

Following the event, North Korea issued a statement against Australia for strengthening its relationships with South Korea and the US, to which the Malcolm Turnbull government retorted that the nation will “not be cowed” by the rogue regime. 

(From left) Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo observe a silent tribute to soldiers who paid their ultimate sacrifice during the 1950-53 Korean War, where 17,000 Australian troops fought and 170 died, at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul on Oct. 13. (Yonhap)

“Should Australia continue to follow the US in imposing military, economic and diplomatic pressure upon the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) despite our repeated warnings, they will not be able to avoid a disaster,” the North’s state-run Korea Central News Agency reported on Oct. 14. Bishop riposted, “North Korea’s threats only strengthen our resolve to find a peaceful solution to the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula caused entirely by North Korea’s illegal, threatening and provocative behavior.”

The four ministers also visited the War Memorial of Korea and the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula on Oct. 13, paying tribute to all soldiers and people who died during the 1950-1953 Korean War. Some 17,000 Australian troops fought in the fratricidal war launched by Pyongyang in 1950 as part of the United Nations multinational force, and 340 of them paid the ultimate sacrifice.

The bilateral defense cooperation has evolved over the years to deal with both traditional and nontraditional challenges, including arms control, nuclear counterproliferation and nonproliferation, cybersecurity and transnational law enforcement, border security, crisis management, curbing climate change, counterterrorism, counterpiracy in seas, ensuring the freedom of navigation in international waters, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

“I don’t think you can separate regional challenges from global challenges,” remarked the envoy, noting the rules-based global order that has underpinned its growth and stability are being challenged and eroded today. 

“In terms of regional security’s perspective, we are facing much more uncertain dynamics,” he added, referring to maritime disputes in, and the militarization of, the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean, through which vital energy and goods are transported.

“Therefore increasing our strategic and defense cooperation is vital, especially given that we share so many similarities, such as respect for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the international law, as freely trading nations. There’s much more we can do to underpin these rules. Defense cooperation is a vital link that ensures we continue to prop up and uphold these rules of the international order.”

(From left) Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo speak during a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul on Oct. 13 (Yonhap)

Korea has been an interoperable bilateral defense partner of Australia, particularly since a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation was signed in 2011. The blueprint commits to more joint exercises, training and staff exchanges in both directions.

Australia and Korea share a strong commitment to supporting and developing the East Asia Summit, an annual forum bringing together leaders of 18 countries of the East Asian, Southeast Asian and South Asian regions, plus the US and Russia, for enhancing strategic cooperation, building mutual confidence and reducing regional tensions, said the ambassador.

The two countries also share similar interests through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum for 21 Pacific-Rim member economies, designed to foster free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus; and MIKTA, an informal alliance of middle powers Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia, led by their Foreign Ministers working to enhance global governance. 

Turning his attention on MIKTA, Choi said, “As a loose group of like-minded countries of similar sizes, which are powers in their own respective regions, we can shape the international agenda by speaking together with one collective voice on key issues. MIKTA amplifies the voice of our countries and make other countries take notice.”

Acknowledging the global geopolitical landscape, where genuine worldwide cooperation on many critical issues remains difficult, Choi said in place of the unwieldy multilateralism, “minilateralism” -- involving smaller groupings of like-minded nations, the prime example of which is MIKTA -- will rise in importance in the future.

“The challenges of multilateralism, as evident in the United Nations, is palpable. Coordinating among all UN member states with conflicts of interest is unwieldy and difficult. But minilateralism like MIKTA can act much quicker and nimbler, especially among those that already share common interests.”

The 10th MIKTA Foreign Ministers' Meeting in New York on Sept. 22, 2017 (MIKTA Australia)

Pointing to the “Indo-Pacific” region, a term describing the evolving global economic order surrounding the Indian Ocean’s tropical waters, the western and central Pacific Ocean and the Southeast Asian seas, the diplomat said the Australian Foreign Ministry has moved away from using the term “Asia-Pacific” for “Indo-Pacific” over the last six to seven years.

“The broad strategic trend is clear. The economic and strategic weight is continuing to shift westward toward India and ASEAN countries,” he said. He underscored that on top of Australia’s historic security alliance with the US, the country will enhance its engagement with growing China, ASEAN and India. 

Choi also conceded that countries like Australia and Korea face similar challenges in simultaneously dealing with superpowers China and US, both on the levels of security and commerce.

“We are clear-eyed about our values and relationships with the US, while at the same time how to develop relations with China,” he said.

“We want China to play a more constructive role in global affairs. China’s rapid economic and military development comes with corresponding responsibilities. China can support multilateral institutions to underpin the rules of international territorial sovereignty and trade. This is important for building confidence between all countries of the globe.”

By Joel Lee (