Asia’s New Axis?

Australia and South Korea have both experienced major political shifts, but in opposite directions. Australia has emerged from 11 years of conservative government under John Howard to Labor under Kevin Rudd. South Korea is going from 10 years of progressive government under Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun to the conservatives under Lee Myung Bak.

Respectively number 17 and number 14 in the world in terms of GDP, Australia and South Korea are closely tied by a web of trade and other exchanges. Australia is ranked as the number five import market for Korea. For Australia, only China and Japan are bigger customers.

As middle powers, both countries strive to balance their strategic links to a declining and troubled United States with their growing commercial and economic ties to China. The regional discordance between strategic and economic is destabilizing. Given the sheer size of its economy, China’s centrality cannot indefinitely be resisted. The most likely resolution of the present contradiction will be the construction of a post-Cold War regional security and trade grouping – an Asian community separate from though closely tied to the United States.

Australia’s Shift

Australia is a relative latecomer to Asia. Once loyally “British,” it prided itself on sending its young men to fight for the mother country in wars from South Africa and Sudan to Egypt and Turkey, and it maintained a racist (White Australia) immigration policy. With World War Two, however, it shifted allegiance. Since then it has fought alongside the United States in every war from Korea up to and including Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Australia has also continued slowly to shift direction. Two generations ago, it chose multiculturalism over white racism. The result has been a huge social and cultural transformation (greatly for the better). Over a slightly shorter time frame, it has also made serious, if intermittent and ambiguous, attempts to move beyond unilateral dependence on the United States, re-orienting itself by engaging politically and culturally with Asia. It has not rejected the United States but, rather, sought “normal” and friendly relations with it.

The Rudd government reflects this emerging consensus. Rudd took office late in 2007, just months before Lee. Even before he did so, he had called the Iraq war a “mistake” and promised the withdrawal of Australian combat forces, declared that henceforth the United Nations would constitute the central plank of Australian foreign policy, and referred to China as Australia’s “friend and partner.” In government, his first act was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol since dealing with climate change is a core commitment. At its inaugural session, the Rudd parliament announced a ceremonial apology to aboriginal peoples for past crimes against them. Though differing on major issues with the United States, he stressed that the alliance would remain central to his government’s thinking.

South Korea, because of division, war, Cold War, and the still unresolved national question, has also long been dependent on the United States. It has hosted substantial U.S. military forces and has sent its own armed forces to assist in remote wars. For it, too, dependence continues, but has become more difficult and less desired. Divided, and wedged between Asia’s two superpowers, South Korea has been enthusiastic about the prospect of an Asian community. But its voice has been little heeded.

As of early 2008, Rudd’s rather grand political vision of a more independent foreign policy enjoys strong popular support. In contrast, Lee Myung Bak’s more domestic focus on the economy and a harder line position toward North Korea has attracted shrinking support.

Rudd’s Balancing Strategy

It will not be easy for Rudd to accomplish his goals. In Washington his differences with George W. Bush did not affect the apparent warmth of his reception, though his superficially innocent adoption of the rhetoric of “shared values” might cause him problems in future. This is the formula associated with Vice President Dick Cheney’s project for containing China.

Beneath the surface of Rudd’s principles are large contradictions. During the first month of his government, he assured China that his government would not be party to any grouping that could be considered hostile to it. In mid-April, visiting Beijing, he will become the first state leader in modern times to address Chinese authorities in Chinese.

On the eve of his departure for Washington, however, Rudd said that he would honor the regional security commitments entered into by his predecessor, John Howard. These included a Joint Security Agreement with Japan, signed in March 2007. This was post-war Japan’s first security pact with a country other than the United States, and it constitutes a first step toward forming a U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral security agreement. Rudd has yet to clarify his Japan policy. A 2007 Australian Department of Defence paper described Australia’s position as encouraging Japan to set aside its constitutional inhibitions and to adopt a “more active security posture within the U.S. alliance and multinational coalition.” Will Rudd stand by that?

Regional Security

In Beijing, Rudd’s Chinese hosts will want to know how he proposes to honor his various commitments to the United States and Japan, as well as demonstrate his friendship for China.

Rudd must also clarify his stance on the various proposals for an Asian community. To date, China and South Korea have tended to favor a narrow, regionally focused composition (ASEAN + China, Japan, and Korea). Japan, backed by the United States and Australia, promotes an “all in” Asia, as represented, broadly, by the Asian Summit first convened in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005, which included Australia, New Zealand, India, among others. The contest over Asia’s future boils down to: “United States-in” versus “United States-out.”

In general terms, the challenge for Rudd is find some way to help construct an “Asia” that accommodates China, engages the energies and idealism of Japan, and avoids offending the United States, within the broad frame of holding global warming in check and pioneering a sustainable civilization. Only with the cooperation of other middle powers, in particular South Korea, can he hope to advance such an agenda.

Sadly, neither Australia nor South Korea pays adequate attention to the other. Not a single media representative of the one is stationed in the other. Australia now has a large and growing Korean community, and there are well-established Koreatowns in the major cities. More than 30,000 Koreans study in Australia, a majority of them at universities. The Australian National University now has around 40 Korean graduate students, researching in law, politics, astronomy, chemistry, physics and medicine, where a decade ago there might have been four or five. Growing numbers of Australian students – though in gross terms they are still absurdly few – study Korean language, culture, and society.

The term “shared values” is rarely used in Australia or Korea, and its manipulative, ideological use is rightly treated with suspicion. Yet Australia and South Korea stand out as countries in the region that enjoy a vibrant civic democracy, engage in serious efforts to come to terms with their past, and share the same geo-strategic dilemmas arising from U.S. decline, China’s rise, Japan’s confusion, and the threat of global warming. Both have much to gain by transcending their dependence on great powers, past and future, and cooperating in the imagining and building of a new, sustainable, and peaceful Asia.

Gavan McCormack is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and an emeritus professor at Australian National University. His latest book is Client State: Japan in the American Embrace.