► The reason behind active changing policy directives for South Korea is its quest for national security while maintaining strategic autonomy.
► Today, apart from joining forces with like-minded states to thwart the security concerns plaguing the region (mainly courtesy China and North Korea), economic security (including supply chains), critical technologies, and connectivity are some of the important areas where South Korea is expected to revitalize partnerships.
► Considering the importance (and threat) of China in Northeast Asia security and economic architecture, Seoul’s strategic clarity will need to be complemented with a fine balance toward China and a concerted inclusive cooperation with India and ASEAN at the earliest.
For long, South Korea has not fulfilled its middle power potential despite its economic and technological prowess. A large part of it is certainly due to the balancing required to offset the US-China rivalry and the inordinate stress on North Korea, but the resolve for greater diplomatic outreach has also been certainly lacking. Fortunately, the ascent of the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has signaled a change in approach that has been (as of now) in line with the projected enthusiasm of Indo-Pacific partners. At the same time, Yoon’s recent overtures as “unilateral diplomacy” (i.e., overtly pro-US and anti-China) is seen critically, which is against national interests and harmful for the Northeast Asia security in the longer term.
Given that India, too, is walking a tightrope (negotiating clear stands to counter China without kowtowing to the West) – albeit the two states do not share the same insecurities, nor paths; for one, China is India’s direct security threat but not so for South Korea – how does India perceive South Korea’s new Indo-Pacific security cooperation motivations? What are the obstacles to promoting regional and bilateral security cooperation for South Korea? In what areas is it realistic for South Korea to promote cooperation with regional frameworks such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and AUKUS (the Australia, UK, US defense pact) in the near future?
Changing Motivations: From Hedging to Bold Diplomacy?
Former President Moon Jae-in’s belated and cautious move toward the US-led Indo-Pacific construct (in the latter half of his term) limited South Korea’s emergence as a noteworthy middle power regionally, let alone help project a global image. Moon’s priority in any case till the end of his term was brokering a détente with North Korea while aligning the Free and Open Indo-Pacific via his laudable but ultimately restrictive foreign policy initiative the New Southern Policy (NSP).
Entering into a US-led regional security cooperation network through frameworks like the Quad and AUKUS, which China sees as a reconfiguration of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Asia, was not considered a viable option. However, Moon approved implicitly targeting China, evidenced by the Moon-Biden joint statement and G7’s “Open Societies Statement.” Even South Korea’s inclusion into the “Quad Plus” format in March 2020, which was initially viewed as a gradual softening of its Indo-Pacific stand, furnished no significant development beyond vaccine partnerships, as both the grouping and Plus members remained cautious.
In stark contrast, Yoon from the outset has shown a clear interest in participating in Indo-Pacific-oriented forums in order to advance his global vision for South Korea – encompassing a range of issues from economic security to security beyond Northeast Asia. Even as his (upcoming and awaited) Indo-Pacific strategy is set to follow the US FOIP, the recent bold diplomatic actions including attending the NATO summit that was guaranteed to target China; reaching out to Japan (albeit via the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral) despite little letup in historic tensions; and extending deterrence against North Korea are highlighting a clear-cut intent to enter into the regional great game, no longer as an onlooker.
The reason behind active changing policy directives for South Korea is its quest for national security while maintaining strategic autonomy. As a middle power, Moon’s NSP (and NSP Plus) were able to create strategic space for Seoul in regional politics but the limitation of not going beyond non-traditional security adversely impacted the potential of the policy. As the FOIP vision gets more universally acknowledged among the established powers – the European Union (EU) is the latest advocate – South Korea recognizes that in order to rebuild focus on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea must emerge as a more active player in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific as well.
South Korea is acutely aware of the threats its neighbors North Korea and China pose to its security and growth. While China-North Korea ties have continued to grow, and with China’s economic retaliation to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2017 fresh in the Korean psyche, Yoon has begun actively strengthening the South Korea-US alliance as a necessity and building stronger ties bilaterally and multilaterally with democratic Indo-Pacific powers. Importantly, Yoon has already geared to improving ties with vital regional power Japan, with whom South Korea famously shares an antagonistic and painful history.
Evaluating the Indian Perspective
The India-South Korea ties today are based on the NSP and the ‘Act East’ Policy, centered on boosting trade that reached an all-time high last year. But the ties are not as strong as India has with Japan or even China; moreover, stress on creating a regional bonhomie has been sorely lacking, too. India would be hopeful of the impact of Yoon’s unambiguous turn to the Indo-Pacific construct for two main reasons: 1) Yoon seems to share Modi’s hunger for strategic autonomy and global leadership; 2) Yoon’s unmistakable messaging to North Korea and China indicates that he may be able to provide momentum to the lackluster political will in order to change the status quo in ties.
Bilaterally, India would now be looking to advance security ties (defense, cyber, new technology, and maritime domains) and infrastructure and digital connectivity, as well as create avenues for strengthening supply chain resilience – a much-coveted area. India would also look to create broader connect through regional minilaterals, new or existing like the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI; India is a founding member), and extending support in multilateral mechanisms. India will also be looking to revitalize the NSP-envisioned “tripartite” relationship with ASEAN. Mindful of its historical role in the Korean War and to enhance its global image, it would be remiss of India not to pursue meaningful participation in the Northeast Asia peace process, via South Korea.
Seoul’s Indo-Pacific Security Networking: Pragmatism at Play?
Today, apart from joining forces with like-minded states to thwart the security concerns plaguing the region (mainly courtesy China and North Korea), economic security (including supply chains), critical technologies, and connectivity are some of the important areas where South Korea is expected to revitalize partnerships. However, the following are some factors that need to be handled delicately and proficiently without lowering the cautious gaze:
- Its unsteady relationship with Japan;
- The escalating tensions with North Korea (the lack of stress on dialogue is threatening to resemble an unbalanced “anti-Moon” version – excessive stress on deterrence);
- The almost compulsive tilt toward the US without yet formulating a China policy (the economic dependency continues unabated) amid the tense democracies versus autocracies face-off;
- Overt emphasis on the prospects with the West (be they with the US or NATO);
- No bilateral outreach with regional countries like India or the Southeast Asian nations despite its global state rhetoric.)
Nonetheless, Seoul’s pursuing of multiple economic arrangements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP; not yet approved) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA; in talks); Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP; member); and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF; member), as well as impending revival of the “long-awaited” China-Japan-South Korea free trade agreement is illustrative of its economic intent and reach.
South Korea’s THAAD ordeal of 2017 made it clear that economic dependence on China has direct and dire consequences for its security architecture. Seoul’s joining of the US-led IPEF is a strict move to reduce such dependence on Beijing, which has warned South Korea against “decoupling.” Seoul is also a natural partner for the SCRI (India-Australia-Japan), especially as South Korea looks toward diversification.
Further, Yoon’s abiding interest in participating in security forums like the Quad (comprising the US, India, Japan, and Australia) is not just to raise the global profile but also to strengthen its military position. Already, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) has become the first non-Asian state to join NATO’s Cyber Defense Group (CDG) bringing Seoul closer to Brussels as the latter declared China a “security challenge.” Such a growing NATO-South Korea connect bodes well for an invitation to join the intelligence-sharing Five Eyes (FVEY). Yoon recognizes that inclusion in such networks would prove monumental for self-defense and deterrence in the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, as China’s (and North Korea’s) fears of an emerging “Asian NATO” continue to grow, Seoul will find itself in deeper waters wherein closer alignment with democratic Indo-Pacific powers will be critical.
Even though Yoon has expressed his desire to see South Korea within the core Quad – an active focus on traditional security ambit – at the moment, it is unlikely. Besides the Japan factor, the existing partners, including India, would not be willing to disturb their carefully cultivated bonhomie, nor give up their clout in an increasingly relevant grouping. The cooperation will likely commence via ‘Quad Plus’ or working groups on a range of non-traditional security areas (e.g., digital infrastructure, supply chains, 5G, semiconductors). However, including South Korea in joint military exercises like MALABAR could be on cards, as it has already participated in MILAN and RIMPAC.
Nonetheless, direct engagement with Quad, AUKUS, or FYEV will be inadvisable for South Korea under present circumstances, as China is already enraged enough by Yoon’s pledges to IPEF and NATO despite his circumspection. Considering the importance (and threat) of China in Northeast Asia security and economic architecture, Seoul’s strategic clarity will need to be complemented with a fine balance toward China and a concerted inclusive cooperation with India and ASEAN at the earliest.