► At the 23rd ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit on 11 November 2022 in Cambodia, President Yoon Suk Yeol outlined South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
► Yoon’s speech is the latest in a series of indications that – as then presidential campaign advisor and current National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han said – Seoul is moving away from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity” amid China-US rivalry.
► As part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea is also putting forth a Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI). In addition to the usual focus areas of ASEAN-ROK cooperation – such as development, environment and trade – KASI would also promote strategic and defence dialogue between both sides.
► For South Korea and ASEAN, recognising the advantages that could be acquired by branching out from their traditional partnerships and strengthening relations with each other could help to push forward cooperation.
At the 23rd ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit on 11 November 2022 in Cambodia, President Yoon Suk Yeol outlined South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy. The announcement came on the back of considerable regional anticipation, ever since Yoon declared South Korea’s intention to formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy. Compared to several US allies in the region and beyond, South Korea has been a relative latecomer to embrace the Indo-Pacific framing. While a roadmap for implementation will be presented later, the strategy’s elements as disclosed by Yoon offer some preliminary expectations of how the current administration intends to approach regional diplomacy.
South Korea’s introduction of an Indo-Pacific framework hints at its pursuit of a greater strategic profile in the region and an attempt to align more closely with the United States and its allies and partners. That said, however, there is little indication to suggest that such efforts would come at the expense of Seoul’s ties with Beijing. Cooperation with ASEAN, moreover, appears to be an important piece of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific puzzle.
From “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity”
In support of the vision for a “free, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”, Yoon emphasised the importance of a rules-based international order based on universal values. He warned against forceful unilateral changes to the status quo and called for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. He also committed to strengthening South Korea’s security and economic cooperation with regional counterparts in several areas including public health, maritime safety and digitalisation.
Yoon’s speech is the latest in a series of indications that – as then presidential campaign advisor and current National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han said – Seoul is moving away from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity” amid China-US rivalry. Under the previous Moon Jae-in administration, South Korea had for the most part refrained from explicitly endorsing the US-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy. This was read as a way for South Korea to maintain a balance between its relations with China and the United States.
It appears, however, that change is afoot in South Korea’s foreign policy. In addition to the formulation of an Indo-Pacific strategy, Yoon has earlier expressed interest in working with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and taken steps to mend relations with Japan. South Korea has reportedly decided to join the US-led “Chip 4” initiative – regarded by China as a move to exclude it from global semiconductor supply chains – that also involves Taiwan and Japan. Seoul’s efforts point to a closer alignment with the regional strategies of Washington and other like-minded partners.
Yet, it is unlikely that South Korea would turn away from its relations with China. Seoul would continue to require Beijing’s support for its policy on North Korea, and China remains South Korea’s largest trading partner. Despite a campaign promise to deploy additional batteries of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, the Yoon government has not appeared to take substantive action on this since it came into office. Yoon also did not meet with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she arrived in South Korea from a controversial visit to Taiwan; the presidential office cited a conflict with his vacation schedule.
More recently in November, Yoon and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in-person for the first time on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Bali. The preliminary outcomes of the Yoon-Xi summit reflected the willingness of both sides to work towards warmer relations. Significantly, Yoon had conveyed during the meeting that South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy did not aim to exclude China. The decision to reveal its Indo-Pacific strategy at the ASEAN-ROK Summit – rather than at a summit with the United States or at a non-ASEAN-led multilateral forum – is telling of how Seoul intends to frame the strategy.
ASEAN-ROK cooperation in the Indo-Pacific
ASEAN is arguably a natural partner in South Korea’s efforts to boost its regional profile. In the current climate, engagement with ASEAN tends to avoid the geopolitical complications that are likely to come with engagement of China or the United States. To be sure, South Korea’s relations with ASEAN are not a substitute for its relations with the major powers. But in the context of competitive China-US dynamics over the Indo-Pacific construct and associated initiatives, choosing to launch its Indo-Pacific strategy at an ASEAN platform is perhaps the best option for South Korea.
Like South Korea, ASEAN has sought to balance its ties with the contending powers and emphasise the importance of an inclusive regional architecture. During the 40th ASEAN Summit in November 2022, ASEAN leaders reaffirmed their openness towards working with all “interested parties in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions” for the priority areas listed in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). South Korea has expressed support for the AOIP and the 2021–2025 plan of action for the ASEAN-ROK strategic partnership calls for enhancing cooperation in the AOIP’s priority areas.
As part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea is also putting forth a Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI). In addition to the usual focus areas of ASEAN-ROK cooperation – such as development, environment and trade – KASI would also promote strategic and defence dialogue between both sides. Yoon further proposed to upgrade ASEAN-ROK relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership – which ASEAN currently has with Australia, China, India and the United States – in 2024. These plans suggest South Korea’s efforts to fill what has been typically regarded as a gap in its relations with ASEAN, specifically, the strategic and security dimensions.
Whether KASI will succeed in plugging this gap, however, remains to be seen. After all, the New Southern Policy had a “peace” pillar premised on diplomatic and security cooperation but progress here was calibrated to avoid South Korea getting entangled in China-US rivalry. Such fears are unlikely to have disappeared. Similarly, longstanding differences between ASEAN and South Korea in the importance they accord to the North Korea problem – which have affected their respective views and approaches towards each other – do not appear to have been overcome. Given that there has been no considerable change to the challenges hindering closer ASEAN-ROK strategic and security cooperation, it raises the question of how effective KASI would be in changing the status quo.
One basis for a more sustainable KASI is perhaps an increase in the political willingness of South Korea and ASEAN to do more in their partnership. The events of the past several years – such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the China-US “decoupling” – have underscored the importance for small and medium-sized countries to diversify their foreign relations and not be overly reliant on a single external source of economic growth or security.
For South Korea and ASEAN, recognising the advantages that could be acquired by branching out from their traditional partnerships and strengthening relations with each other could help to push forward cooperation. The expansion and deepening of ASEAN-ROK ties could consequently contribute towards shaping a greater strategic profile for South Korea in the Indo-Pacific.