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Australia's four 'first order' relationships

Image Credit: Office of Scott Morrison (Creative Commons: Facebook)

With the announcement of the ‘Pacific Step-Up’ last year, it is unsurprising that recent discussion of Australian foreign policy has focused largely on its activities in the South Pacific. But

the Morrison government’s reelection also provides an opportunity to refresh Australia’s profile across the broader Indo-Pacific.

In a Pacific Forum discussion paper earlier this year, I outlined several aspects of what might be termed an Australian Indo-Pacific Strategy. While the Pacific Step-Up is certainly featured, so too does the building of stronger ties with Southeast Asia and India. Something that argument overlooked, however, was an examination of the four priority relationships so designated by the 2017 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade White Paper. That document identified "[t]he Indo–Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India and the Republic of Korea” as relationships of “first order importance to Australia”, both as bilateral partners and architects of the future regional order. With so much focus on Australia’s Pacific engagement, and in light of the re-election of the Morrison government, it is worth assessing each of these ‘first order’ relationships.

Though not without setbacks, Australia’s relationship with India is steadily improving. For instance, while Australia is still excluded from the annual Malabar Exercises between American, Indian and Japanese navies, the most recent edition of AUSINDEX was the largest to date. Negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement have stalled, but the release of the India 2035 Report last July was a welcome statement on Canberra’s ambitions to improve the bilateral economic relationship. Doing so would help Canberra diversify its trade relationships away from a perceived dependence on that with Beijing, ties which the latter has increasingly exploited to apply political pressure. The reelection of the Morrison and Modi governments respectively should give both states confidence in the stability of each other’s foreign policy trajectory.

Conversely, Australia-Indonesia tie have not fared quite as positively. Historically, hard-fought advances in economic and security ties have regularly been imperilled by cultural misunderstandings, political miscalculations, or diverging perspectives on wider geopolitical issues. The most recent example of this occurred on Morrison’s watch: his decision last October to relocate Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem failed to anticipate the likely blowback from Indonesia. Indonesia responded to the move in no uncertain terms and threatened to postpone indefinitely the ratification of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement finalised only weeks earlier. The Australian government attempted to argue that it was within its sovereign rights to make such a decision, but it was difficult to see how scoring minor points with the Trump administration or voters in a marginal domestic electorate outweighed the importance of trust-building with Australia’s closest and most misunderstood neighbour.

That said, the reelection of incumbent governments in both countries may provide a sound platform from which to recalibrate Australia’s approach to the bilateral relationship. A major foreign policy priority for the Morrison government should be building stronger interpersonal relationships and, by extension, greater trust with the Jokowi administration. In the long-term, Australian governments should also seek to foster greater trust and understanding of Indonesia amongst the broader population. Strong and durable bilateral ties are only going to become more important as Indonesia’s overall national power increases, and as broader regional power dynamics begin to shift.

Australia’s relationship with Japan is by far the healthiest of the four. The partnership does not always receive the attention it deserves, yet security and economic ties between Canberra and Tokyo continue to leap from strength to strength. There is notable convergence between their respective Indo-Pacific outlooks, and it is not without reason that commentators and officials alike have labelled the two as ‘quasi-allies’. Their cooperation amidst the United States’ hiatus from regional economic leadership has been particularly noteworthy. Despite Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, together Canberra and Tokyo rallied the agreement’s remaining participants to finalise the revamped Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Bilateral strategic cooperation is also evolving: an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement was signed in January 2017, and the finalisation of the Reciprocal Access Agreement, now in negotiation for more than four years, is likely to be high on the near-term agenda.

Of the four priority relationships, the biggest question mark hangs over that with South Korea. Australia is one of South Korea’s only two 2+2 Dialogue partners (the other being the United States), which would seemingly grant Canberra a unique vantage point from which to garner insight into and to influence South Korean foreign policy thinking. Yet while bilateral ties are by no means poor, they nevertheless appear neglected and under-utilised when compared against the other three ‘priorities’. Whether this is the fault of one or both the parties is debatable but it is clear that Australia’s Korea policy needs a reset in order to escape the ‘nuclear tunnel vision’ blinding policymakers in Canberra to anything on the Peninsula other than North Korean nuclear and missile tests.

On the other hand, it is unclear whether South Korea sees the same value in bilateral ties as Australia’s White Paper indicates it does. Seoul has endured a whirlwind two years of inter-Korean and US-North Korea diplomacy, and could thus be forgiven for being distracted from relationship-building elsewhere. Yet the Moon administration has demonstrated the ambition to diversify South Korean foreign policy, with the President travelling across Southeast Asia in support of his administration’s ‘New South Policy’, including state visits to Indonesia and New Zealand - two of Australia’s closest neighbours. Canberra, it seemed, was not a priority.

There is clearly a firm baseline underpinning bilateral relations, including the 2014 Free Trade Agreement and the ambitious 2015 Blueprint for Defence and Security Cooperation. There are also clear synergies between Seoul’s New South Policy and Canberra’s own Indo-Pacific Strategy, including regional infrastructure development and maritime security capacity-building in Southeast Asia. Perhaps the upcoming 2+2 Meeting later this year will provide the spark the relationship sorely needs.

The relationships briefly explored above are far more nuanced and worthy of greater analytical rigour than was possible here. Yet it is nonetheless evident that Australia has much to do in order to address the unique challenges and opportunities presented by each relationship. At the very least, the Morrison government’s reelection should reassure governments in Jakarta, New Delhi, Seoul and Tokyo that Canberra has finally quelled the leadership churn at the top and struck upon political stability. However, whether that translates to greater consistency, creativity and reliability in Australian in foreign policy, however, remains to be seen.

Tom Corben is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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