► Australian efforts to develop a more reciprocal military exercise relationship with South Korea have until recently been rebuffed.
► Three distinct strategic rationales underpin ROK-Australia military exercises: alliance, bilateral, and regional motivations. Each is currently changing.
► Australia welcomes recent ROK commitments to exercise more closely with Australia, if they can be sustained.
Military exercises between the Republic of Korea and Australia have historically been an unrequited affair, characterised by Australian activism and ROK ambivalence. But in recent years, the ROK has sent Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps personnel and assets to participate in military exercises hosted by Australia, many for the first time. What explains Seoul’s newfound willingness to send its forces all the way to Australia?
This article outlines the three strategic rationales that have underpinned ROK-Australia military exercises: inter-alliance cooperation, bilateral functional interests, and regional defence diplomacy. It argues that new developments in all three rationales help explain the growing ROK willingness to participate in military exercises with Australia.
The Imbalance in ROK-Australia Military Exercises
ROK-Australia military exercises have lagged behind other areas of their security cooperation such as high-level diplomacy under their 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ meeting, minilateral initiatives, port visits, military exchanges, and defence industrial cooperation. While Australian military personnel have regularly visited the ROK over the decades, the reverse case has been much rarer. This has been attributed to a range of reasons, including the urgency of North Korean crises for Seoul, fears of antagonising potential adversaries, limited resources, geographic distance, and differing strategic outlooks. Nonetheless, there remain strong incentives for closer military exercises.
The Alliance Rationale
ROK-Australia military exercises are guided by three distinct strategic rationales. The alliance rationale focuses on strengthening their respective security ties with the United States and ensuring stability on the Korean Peninsula. The alliance rationale is the oldest framework for why ROK and Australian military forces train and exercise together, rooted in the United Nations Command (UNC). Australian personnel maintain an active presence on the UNC Headquarters, UNC-Rear in Japan, and inter-Korean border monitoring missions.
ROK-US alliance exercises focus on signalling deterrence and building warfighting interoperability. Australian participation in such military exercises on the Korean Peninsula therefore seeks to enhance collective deterrence against North Korean aggression by exercising with allied forces. As such, Australian personnel have participated in past iterations of the large-scale ROK-US Ulchi Freedom Guardian field exercises as well as the smaller amphibious exercises Ssang Yong.
The alliance rationale for military exercises is changing as the US strategy of integrated deterrence pushes its allies to cooperate more closely with each other. For example, the 2021 ROK-Australia 2+2 foreign and defence ministers’ meeting noted for the first time the bilateral relationship’s importance as “part of a network of alliances and partnerships that underpin broader regional stability and prosperity.” This helps to explain why in 2021 the ROK participated for the first time in the bilateral Australia-US Army Exercise Talisman Sabre by sending a Navy destroyer.
The Bilateral Rationale
The bilateral rationale for military exercises is built on incremental policy cooperation as part of the broader ROK-Australia relationship. Political and economic cooperation has increased over the years, including a free trade agreement. This was the underlying motivation behind the 2009 Joint Statement on enhanced global and security cooperation which initiated a significant increase in bureaucratic dialogues, ship visits, personnel exchanges and training, and more. The key military exercise during this period was the biennial Navy anti-submarine warfare Exercise Haedoli-Wallaby, started in 2012. However, Haedoli-Wallaby has been the only major bilateral ROK-Australia military training activity for the past decade. Moreover, all exercises have taken place in the waters around the Korean Peninsula, imposing a significant burden on Australia.
The bilateral dimension to military exercises has been influenced less by US preferences and more by changes in the relationship itself. Just as the early 2010s defence cooperation accompanied bilateral interest in a free trade agreement and global financial cooperation, a similar pattern is occurring today. The 2021 upgrading of ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership was accompanied by Australia’s acquisition of 30 modified K9 self-propelled howitzers from the ROK as well as new cooperation in areas such as critical minerals, renewable energy, and trusted supply chains. In turn, bilateral military exercises are beginning to catch up to other dimensions of the relationship and the two countries announced that they would begin a bilateral infantry training exercise in 2023.
The Regional Rationale
Whereas alliance-centred exercises focus on deterrence with the United States and bilateral exercises focus on functional interests, regional multinational exercises seek to shape the Indo-Pacific strategic order through enhanced interoperability. The regional rationale is most evident in the strong normative framing of the multinational exercises that both the ROK and Australia participate in. The ROK and Australia now participate in seven multinational exercises that include each other, from large-scale exercises like the Rim of the Pacific which includes 26 countries to smaller exercises like the Australian-hosted Pacific Reach on submarine search and rescue.
ROK participation in these multinational exercises is less about its relationship with Australia per se and more about demonstrating in its wider ambitions and commitments. This parallels how other regional countries are also moving towards more inclusive participation in previously bilateral exercises. In September 2022, the ROK participated in the Australian Air Force’s Exercise Pitch Black for the first time by sending six KF-16 fighters, one KC-330 tanker plane and 130 personnel. The large multinational exercise in northern Australia included a dozen countries and almost 100 aircraft.
There is, however, some overlap across the three strategic rationales on some multinational exercises. For example, the US-hosted Exercise Pacific Vanguard and Exercise Pacific Dragon, which focus on air and missile defence drills at sea after the larger RIMPAC exercise, was expanded in 2022 from a ROK-US-Japan trilateral to also include Australia and Canada. Similarly, Exercise Sea Dragon is an anti-submarine warfare exercise that takes place near Guam and includes key US allies, representing a more advanced version of Haedoli-Wallaby by practising tracking a US Navy submarine.
Sustaining a Reciprocal Military Exercise Relationship
Despite these promising signs, the longstanding hurdles to more active ROK participation in military exercises with Australia continue to exist and will actually face new challenges in the coming years. As middle powers with limited defence personnel and capabilities to engage in long-distance visits and exercises on a regular basis, the ROK and Australia need to consolidate their exercises wherever possible. For example, Australia has conducted the Haedoli-Wallaby naval exercise as part of its annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE) engagement activity which involves five Australian Navy ships and almost 2,000 personnel on a two-month tour of 14 countries. The capability and personnel burdens on ROK forces visiting Australia can similarly be reduced through a multi-country regional presence deployment.
Another constraint will be the legal and logistical barriers to larger and more sophisticated military exercises that stem from the lack of a visiting forces agreement. Australia has had a status of forces agreement with Singapore since 1988 and one with the Philippines since 2007. Australian efforts to secure a similar agreement with the ROK were reportedly rebuffed in 2014-16. In early 2022, Australia and Japan finalised a similar agreement, but it took almost eight years to complete. The ROK will need to demonstrate renewed political commitment if more advanced military exercises are to happen.
ROK-Australia military exercises are slowly starting to be commensurate with the wider strategic importance of their relationship and status as US-allied middle powers. This is being driven by a shift in US strategy towards its Indo-Pacific allies, renewed security and economic cooperation in the bilateral relationship, and both countries’ interest in playing a more active regional role at a time of great power coercion and territorial aggression. Australia will welcome recent ROK commitments to train and exercise more closely with it, if they can be sustained.