Strategizing Indo-Pacific with Emerging Neighbors: Korea and the Pacific Islands

► The 18 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) member countries were invited by the Yoon Administration for the inaugural summit held on 29 May, which was the first summit between Korea and PIF members ever since Korea became one of the PIF Dialogue Partners in 1995.

► The Korea-Pacific Islands summit is in line with South Korea’s ongoing efforts to go beyond great power-centered diplomacy by expanding its geopolitical scope of neighborhood in the Asia-Pacific subregion, but also can be seen as adoption of the US-led “strategizing” the Indo-Pacific.

► The detailed agreement (Declaration and Action Plan) after the summit implies that Yoon government’s engagement in the Pacific Islands is closely aligned with the initiatives of the Pacific Islands. South Korea’s existing outreach to the Pacific Islands nations can be an opportunity for Korea to make advances through new planetary challenges with its new neighbors.


The leaders and representatives of Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) member countries visited Korea for the summit meeting held on 29 May. It was the first summit between Korea and PIF members ever since South Korea became one of the PIF Dialogue Partners in 1995. Following the launch of the Korea-Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers' Meeting in 2011 and their agreement to elevate the meeting to the summit level in 2021, the 18 PIF member countries were invited by the Yoon Suk-yeol government for the inaugural summit. Yoon administration's Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region (Indo-Pacific Strategy), released in December last year, provides an important rationale for the summit, defining Korea's strategic needs and challenges.


This article views the Yoon administration's Indo-Pacific Strategy and the expansion of summit-level diplomacy into the Asia-Pacific subregion from two perspectives: first, an ally's response to the US security network building, and second, Korea's continued effort to go beyond great power-centered diplomacy. It further examines how South Korea's engagement in the Pacific Islands will be shaped in the coming years through a brief analysis of the key documents released after the summit: Korea-Pacific Islands Leaders’ Declaration(Declaration) and Action Plan for Freedom, Peace and Prosperity in the Pacific (Action Plan).



Response to the US-led Security Network Building

The US-led order in the Asia-Pacific region is turning its direction towards a multi-layered network-oriented security cooperation platform. The network-centered approach differs from maintaining the US leadership based on hub-and-spoke bilateral alliances. It is in the mutual interests of the US and its allies to re-produce the Indo-Pacific strategic narrative through mini- and multilateral diplomacy. First, for the US, its allies' minilateral engagement with regional players is a substantive driver in the network-based regional order. Second, U.S. allies can apply their economic and military capabilities to their statecraft to serve their national interests, but not in a way that directly strengthens their alliance with the US, but rather by exercising regional leadership.


Yoon's Indo-Pacific Strategy announced last year has a significant meaning in this vein, given it signalled that South Korea is looking for new neighbors in the Asia-Pacific subregion and engaging in mini- and multilateral diplomacy is orchestrated within the framework of its alliance with the US. Some countries approach the Indo-Pacific through the lens of "Outlook" or "Vision," the Yoon administration's "strategizing" of the Indo-Pacific demonstrates its commitment to the US-led regional order to some extent, and its actions affect the expectations that the US and its other allies have for South Korea's role. While it is true that the inaugural Korea-Pacific Islands summit is consistent with South Korea's ongoing and indigenous efforts to go beyond great power-centered diplomacy, it is also an adoption of the US-led, timely agenda of "strategizing" the Indo-Pacific.


Yoon administration's Indo-Pacific Strategy describes the strategy as a "comprehensive regional strategy encompassing the realms of the economy and security." The document lays out South Korea's role as follows, which is consistent with the mutual interests of the US and its allies' governments based on the regional security network building: First, Korea “aspires to become a Global Pivotal State that actively seeks out agenda for cooperation and shapes discussions in the region and the wider world”. Second, it contributes "to the vitalization of various consultative entities in the region". And lastly, it serves "as a hub for cooperation networks in the Indo-Pacific". Yoon government's Indo-Pacific Strategy defines the regional scope of the strategy as follows: (1) North Pacific, (2) Southeast Asia and ASEAN, (3) South Asia, (4) Oceania, (5) African Coast of the Indian Ocean, and (6) Europe and Latin America. Oceania, the fourth of these, covers Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands.



Engage with Emerging Neighbors

According to Indo-Pacific Strategy, Yoon government’s engagement in the Pacific Islands is centred around the following key issues: climate change, health, fisheries, and renewable energy. The document lays out specific ways to collaborate on these issues including “supporting through green ODA the climate change response and low carbon energy transition of the Pacific Island countries vulnerable to climate change” and increasing “the proportion of our green ODA to exceed OECD DAC average levels by 2025, and support the low-carbon energy transition of Pacific Island Countries in particular and share with them innovative green technologies". The plan is closely aligned with the initiatives of the Pacific Islands, 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, and the one including major players, Partners in the Blue Pacific.


Thus, it was expected that the Korea-Pacific Islands summit would bring a collaborative plan linked to existing Pacific Islands' regional and international initiatives. The detailed agreement was embodied in two key documents released after the summit: Declaration and Action Plan. Divided into seven sections, the longest section of the Declaration document is the "Cooperation for a Prosperous and Resilient Pacific" section with 13 articles, including agendas agreed upon in principle and detailed in Action Plan. Then, Action Plan includes three priority areas: climate resilience, capacity-building, and connectivity. Among the 43 measures proposed to expedite these three areas, 18 measures focus on the capacity-building area, including expanding ODA.


South Korea's existing outreach to the Pacific Islands nations, which have emerged as partners in South Korea's mini- and multilateral diplomatic leadership, has been modest so far, but is expected to expand in quantity and quality. Declaration states that South Korea “will seek ways to […] double the scale of ODA for Pacific Island Countries by 2027". The Pacific Aid Map by Lowy Institute, based in Sydney, provides an overall and recent picture of finance and aid flows from international grantors and lenders to the Pacific Islands between 2008 and 2020, the year in which the most up-to-date and complete data is available. It quantifies South Korea's contribution to development finance in the Pacific Islands. Between 2008 and 2020, South Korea's contribution to the total development finance actually disbursed by 67 donor countries ranged between 0.10% and 0.87%. During this period, South Korea recorded its largest development finance contribution in 2018. In terms of recipients of South Korean development finance, Fiji was given the largest portion, receiving a total of 37 million USD, which is 30% of what South Korea spent for the 15 Pacific Island countries during the same period. The next largest recipients were Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, accounting for 19% and 10% of Korea's spending, respectively. In the meantime, the overall development finance flows into the Pacific Islands have been primarily dominated by the key regional powers, including Australia and New Zealand, which are also members of the PIF and have averaged their contribution over the same period 40% and 7%, respectively. It will be interesting to see how the outcomes of the summit impact South Korea's contribution to the Pacific Islands over the next five years.


The Korea-Pacific Islands summit is in line with former Korean governments' efforts to expand its geopolitical scope of neighborhood, represented by Northern Policy, New Southern Policy, and New Northern Policy. In 2011, under the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, the first Korea-Pacific Islands Foreign Ministers' Meeting was launched on a three-year term, and a decade later, under the progressive Moon Jae-in administration, the Minister-level meeting was agreed to be held more frequently once in every two years. Yoon government's engagement in the Pacific Islands region is an example of the intersection of South Korea's diplomatic outreach and its response to the US Indo-Pacific Strategy as the US ally. It is an opportunity for South Korea, whose diplomatic resources have focused primarily on great powers until recently, to make qualitative and quantitative advances through a set of new agenda of planetary challenges with its new neighbors, the Pacific Islands.


Jiye Kim is an Assistant Professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (Japan) and a researcher affiliated with the University of Sydney (Australia). Previously, she contributed to Macquarie University (Australia) as an Assistant Professor (AU: Lecturer). Her research focuses on international security and employs an interdisciplinary approach to advance our understanding of imminent planetary challenges. Building on her research, she regularly teaches courses on Asia-Pacific Politics, Geopolitics and Geostrategy, Strategy and Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, incorporating critical issues in emerging areas such as Climate, Health, Space, among others.