Opening remarks by Mr Peter Varghese AO, Chancellor of The University of Queensland and Chair of the Asialink Council to the Asialink Korea Dialogue, 25 November 2021

Let me begin, as so many Australian meetings now begin, by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands from which the Australian participants are attending and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Let me also, as chair of the Asialink Council, extend my warm welcome to all our participants and particularly our participants from Korea for this Australia-Korea Dialogue.  May I acknowledge in particular Representative Lee Kwang-Jae, Chair of the Foreign Policy and Trade Committee of the Korean National Assembly.

This is the second in a series of Dialogues around the theme “Towards a cohesive future” and I would like to acknowledge and thank Asialink’s partners in this series:  AusSCCAP and the US-China Policy Institute at Ajou University.

For over thirty years Asialink has been in the business of explaining why Asia matters to Australia’s future, why we need a deeper understanding of the diversity and world views of our Asian partners and why engagement is a matter not just of the head but also the heart.

Today is an opportunity for us to delve more deeply into the many issues which we face in common; to reflect on how we think about them, how they connect to our national interests and where there is scope for us to work more closely together.

I think it is fair to say that most of us think the Australia Korea relationship is underdone or at the very least has much room to grow.  We are strong economic partners, albeit across a narrow band of sectors.  But our strategic relationship seems consistently to fall short of what it might be, notwithstanding many shared perspectives including as allies of the US.

At one level this should not be surprising.  Australia’s history and geography as well as our strategic anxieties are quite different.  We have a sense of the durability of the US alliance which may be different to a Korea which has to think of life after reunification and whose instinct to go down an independent path may be stronger than ours.  You are geographically closer to China and you need to factor nuclear weapons into your strategic thinking in a way we do not, contrary to some of the exaggerated concerns about what AUKUS may signal .

Both of our countries have to come to grips with China’s abandonment of hide and bide, its apparent determination to recreate the Middle Kingdom and its competition with the US for regional primacy.  We both have to grapple with whether we can find a new strategic equilibrium in the Indo Pacific which both engages and constrains China.  Or whether we are doomed to a new cold war characterised by a radical decoupling of the global economy and the risk that a cold war could turn hot and nuclear.

We are both G20 economies.  We must wrestle with a very different economic outlook where trade is less a driver of global growth, where the choice of trading partner is more influenced by strategic congruence than comparative advantage, where trade liberalisation is in retreat and globalisation slowing.  Again, our economic histories are different but we both will have to learn how to re-prosecute the case for an open economy in the face of the political appeal of self reliance and supply chains restricted to like mindeds.

We are all today apostles of diversification.  But how do we achieve that and where do we put our effort?  Is a China plus strategy still an option or will diversification inevitably lead us to a more cautious, smaller relationship with China?

Australia and Korea have to make their way in a more multipolar region and world.  Australia has tended to see a multipolar region as a second best option after US primacy whereas for Korea it is perhaps a more desirable end state in its own right.  One of the many paradoxes of our region today is that the US strategy to hold onto strategic primacy through balancing China with  coalitions of allies and strategic partners will likely hasten the emergence of a multipolar Indo Pacific.

These are just some of the questions this dialogue might address and the privilege of welcoming remarks is that I can pose the questions without having to provide the answers.  But there are many with us today who are well placed to do just that and I look forward to a rich discussion.

So I would encourage all our participants to engage in the discussion; to speak frankly and to achieve in this dialogue what we want to see in the broader Australia-Korea relationship:  an honest analysis, a focus on points of agreement and a better understanding of the wellsprings of why on other issues we may arrive at different conclusions.