[Herald Interview] ‘Australia, Korea can progress across Indo-Pacific’

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Apr 17, 2017 - 18:15
  • Updated : Apr 17, 2017 - 22:21
The defining axis of global growth over the next 25 years will be the “Indo-Pacific” region, encompassing rising India and Southeast Asia, a renowned political scientist forecast, urging Seoul to harness a future-oriented strategy that involves strengthened cooperation with Australia. 

As China’s growth falters and India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations amass industrial weight and abundant labor, the world economy’s center of gravity will drift toward the Indo-Pacific, according to Gordon Flake, professor and chief executive officer of The University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Center.

The Indo-Pacific is not a formal system or institution, but a description of evolving global economic order surrounding the Indian Ocean’s tropical waters, the western and central Pacific Ocean and the Southeast Asian seas. The construct has come to the fore in recent years, with far-reaching implications for the world’s maritime trade, energy flows and security dynamics. 

“The economic center of gravity in the postwar period through the end of the Cold War was in Northeast Asia, with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan,” Flake told The Korea Herald following a seminar at the East Asia Foundation in Seoul on April 11.

Gordon Flake, professor and chief executive officer of The University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Center (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

“Then it shifted southwest to China for the next 25 years. The shift will continue southwest toward India and Southeast Asia, entailing geopolitical implications. If I were a South Korean geostrategic planner, I would begin to formulate a strategy to take advantage of that.”

According to global services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, half of the global wealth will be generated in the Asia-Pacific region by 2030, and India will be the world’s third-largest economy after the US and China, trailed by Indonesia. The Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in the region will form the G-20. 

Noting Seoul normalized diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1992 through the “Nordpolitik” foreign policy aimed at engaging former communist economies, the academic argued “tremendous opportunities” exist for Australia and Korea to cooperate in the “the next wave” of growth across the Indo-Pacific.

The American scholar conceded Australia “has not, cannot and will not” play a leading role in the North Korean nuclear issue. Canberra’s diplomatic weight is not significant enough to prod the US and China to recalibrate their status quo, he asserted, adding the two global giants maintain highly integrated economies. 

A map of the Indo-Pacific region. (Eric Gaba)

However, Australia can play a leading role in the arena of the Indo-Pacific, he said.

“Since the 1980s there has not been a single regional initiative involving Southeast Asian countries and their development projects in which Australia didn’t participate first,” the policy wonk said, citing the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, G-20 and the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.

“Australia entered those initiatives first and actively lobbied the US to play a leading role,” he added, noting the previous “pivot to Asia” policy of the Obama administration was largely architected under Australia’s persuasion.

The professor also acknowledged that US President Donald Trump and his administration have displayed skepticism of multilateral initiatives such as ASEAN, preferring to deal with countries bilaterally.

Pointing to proactive diplomatic overtures by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe toward India, ASEAN and Australia, Flake asserted “Abe certainly has an Indo-Pacific strategy” and “Seoul and Tokyo will have more influence in Washington and get their voices heard around the world” by strengthening cooperation with Canberra. 
Gordon Flake (left), professor and chief executive officer of The University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Center, speaks beside Moon Chung-in, distinguished professor emeritus at Yonsei University Songdo Campus, at a seminar at East Asia Foundation on Apr. 11. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

As an example, Flake mentioned the world’s first floating liquefied natural gas project “Prelude” at the offshore central processing facility in Australia, which would ship LNG across the Indo-Pacific. Seoul and Canberra are also part of the MIKTA group -- an informal alliance of middle powers Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia -- which is led by Foreign Ministers and works to enhance global governance.

“The Indo-Pacific isn’t about containing China,” the analyst stressed. He explained that the development of India, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam hinged on trading with China and courting Chinese investments in their markets.

“China is integral to the Indo-Pacific, but at the same time, its ascendance will dilute China’s relative influence. It’s about diversifying the economy, trade and investment, as Korea has learned bitterly following the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) backlash by China.”

Referring to sea-based conflicts in Asia, Flake said the militarization of the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean would pose threats to the Indo-Pacific’s viability, as vital energy and goods are transported through them. 

Gordon Flake, professor and chief executive officer of The University of Western Australia’s Perth USAsia Center (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Australia and Korea are participating members in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a proposed free trade agreement between 10 member states of ASEAN and the six states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

Unlike the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement -- deemed a “21st-century FTA” with advanced labor, environmental and intellectual standards -- the RCEP, largely led by ASEAN and China, is about “getting everyone onboard,” he said.

“As decision-making in ASEAN is based on consultation and consensus, the RCEP will reach for the lowest common denominator to accommodate all participating countries,” added the scholar. “But it could be useful in harmonizing overlapping networks of rules and tariff standards stemming from bilateral FTAs. It will also aid domestic reforms in different economies.”

As Australia and Korea have a bilateral FTA that entered into force in December 2014, the next challenge is to upgrade it by targeting deeper regional integration and further liberalization of the services market, he said.

By Joel Lee (