South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has finally jumped on the Indo-Pacific bandwagon with his country’s much-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy, signalling the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) growing ambition to be a “global pivotal state”.
Unveiled on 28 December, the document represents a big shift from ROK foreign policy under Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in, who tried to steer clear of wider Indo-Pacific concepts. Regional players have often viewed South Korea as an important economic partner but not necessarily as a key strategic player. In the State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey Report, it garnered a mere 0.6% of votes (behind seven others but ahead of India) as the most influential political and strategic power in the region.
Putting Beijing on notice
President Yoon flexed some muscle when he became the first South Korean president to attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit in June 2022 — something that was proudly recorded in the strategy. And the strengthening of ROK-US-Japan trilateral relations (something Washington has long advocated and Beijing fears) signals Seoul’s desire to coalesce with these two foremost Indo-Pacific democracies who both assume central roles in the document.
South Korea’s more-encompassing strategy seeks to include China — a vital trading partner — as a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific region”.
Pundits expected Seoul’s strategy to mirror America’s and Japan’s relatively harder-line visions towards China under the “free and open Indo-Pacific” banner. But the ROK’s Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region reads as a more inclusive text. Unlike those of the US, Japan and Canada, who are to varying degrees wary of China’s emergence, South Korea’s more-encompassing strategy seeks to include China — a vital trading partner — as a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific region”.
But the document nonetheless puts Beijing on notice, making clear Seoul seeks a “more mature relationship … guided by international norms and rules.” This line is no doubt in reference to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)'s punishment of South Korean economic interests for the ROK’s 2016 decision to host America’s Terminal High Aerial Altitude Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system.
The ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy appears to be functioning more as a part of President Yoon’s global foreign policy doctrine rather than a dedicated Indo-Pacific strategy. It runs through a laundry list of countries and regions, even those seemingly outside the scope of the Indo-Pacific, such as Europe and Latin America.
ASEAN a beneficiary
While the value of this broader focus remains to be seen, one clear winner is ASEAN — a regional bloc that favours neutrality and inclusiveness. According to South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, “ASEAN, which is at the heart of the Indo-Pacific region, will naturally become the centrepiece of the ROK’s new (Indo-Pacific) initiative.” It is thus, not surprising that the strategy prominently features ASEAN and was launched at the ASEAN-ROK Summit in November last year.
It is chock full of US-friendly terms like freedom, liberal democracy, universal values and human rights, terms that carry a call for a regional order not shaped by force or coercion.
Apart from increasing its cooperation funds for ASEAN and the Mekong region, as well as providing more Official Development Assistance (ODA) to ASEAN countries, Seoul has promised a Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative — a tailored approach to tackle common challenges under the new ROK Indo-Pacific strategy framework. Under the nine priority areas of implementation, goals such as managing climate change, maritime cooperation, and economic security will dovetail with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Other areas, such as digital trade and technology will also be important to the bloc.
Treaty ally America was the first to welcome the ROK’s first Indo-Pacific strategy, and quite understandably so. And for all its openness to Beijing in some sections, the strategy labels the ROK-US alliance as the “linchpin for peace and democracy” on the Korean peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific. It is chock full of US-friendly terms like freedom, liberal democracy, universal values and human rights, terms that carry a call for a regional order not shaped by force or coercion. Hence even if the strategy claims not to target any particular nations, its underlying principles track with those of Washington’s.
But elsewhere, the document is rife with contradictions and unanswered questions. For example, it calls for freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. But when then-US House Speaker Pelosi visited Seoul in August 2022, President Yoon refused to meet her. It harps on resilient supply chains and technology but South Korea has yet to say whether it will join America’s proposed Chip 4 alliance involving democratic states and their semiconductor supply chains.
Striking a precarious balance
The strategy bemoans a regional arms race just as South Korea’s own defence sector exports are booming (though it should be said that the two are not directly linked; the former is demand and threat-given, while the latter is a function of commercial and sometimes strategic considerations). And while the document champions free trade, Seoul itself has yet to formally submit its long-awaited application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
One section that is remarkably consistent, however, is that of North Korea. Unlike nationalist-left predecessor Moon who called for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, Yoon demands the complete denuclearisation of North Korea only. Neither is likely to happen but at the least, Yoon calls it for what it is.
The bottom line is that Yoon appears to want to further engage ASEAN and move closer to Washington and Tokyo while trying to minimise headaches in South Korea’s largest export market (the PRC).
What will all this mean?
Even though South Korea would not be asking to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), its members need to understand what real value closer cooperation with the ROK in areas such as climate, technology and health can bring. They must see Seoul as a true Indo-Pacific player that principally shares their goals.
South Korea has not burned any bridges on paper here, however. Yoon meanwhile, may have to think through the strategy’s implementation and to what lengths he would go to appease Beijing as he moves closer to the Quad and other democracies.
The bottom line is that Yoon appears to want to further engage ASEAN and move closer to Washington and Tokyo while trying to minimise headaches in South Korea’s largest export market (the PRC). The jury is out as to whether he can strike the appropriate precarious balance.
This article was first published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as a Fulcrum commentary.
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