ROK: An increasingly valuable player in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific
The Republic of Korea’s (ROK) relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-states are long, extensive, and deep. Since South Korea became a newly industrialized country (NIC) in the late 20th century, Seoul has steadfastly fostered close ties with the ASEAN countries in several areas, such as trade, investment, culture, and people-to-people exchanges. For over 30 years, successive South Korean administrations have emphasized the ROK’s economic relations with ASEAN member states. As a result, South Korea’s trade with ASEAN greatly increased since the late 1980s — by 2019, South Korea’s combined exports to all 10 members reached over $80 billion, with two-way trade reaching $160 billion. By the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, most ASEAN member states have Seoul as their second-largest trading partner.
Economic relations between the ROK and the ASEAN member-states became more prominent during President Moon Jae-in’s term following his administration’s launching of the New South Policy (NSP), which sought to reduce South Korea’s economic dependence on the US and China by aligning and expanding its economic ties with ASEAN.
But while socio-economic relations between the ROK and the ASEAN member states developed rapidly in the last 30 years, military and security relations between them lagged. South Korea focused on its diplomatic and strategic ties with the four major powers in Northeast Asia — China, Russia, Japan, and the US — and on inter-Korean relations. Since 1953, Seoul has actively engaged Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, and Washington in its efforts to manage the military threat emanating from North Korea and to foster inter-Korean relations. In recent years, Seoul has focused on ending the state of war between South and North Korea and establishing a peaceful regime on the Korean peninsula. Seoul also tried to steer clear of the strategic competition between the US and China.
During his term, President Jae-in balanced the US-ROK alliance with the ROK-PRC strategic cooperative partnership. Strategically, the ROK was lukewarm to Washington’s demand that Seoul support its only formal treaty ally in confronting Chinese territorial expansion and coercive actions in East Asia and its authoritarian regime.
The ROK also became cold to developing a Japan-ROK-US trilateral security partnership as Seoul-Tokyo bilateral relations were adversely affected by verdicts by South Korean domestic courts regarding Japanese actions in the peninsula before 1945.
The election of President Yoon Suk Yeol as the ROK president in May 2022 pushed a dramatic change in South Korean foreign policy in general, and to ASEAN in particular. President Yoon announced the ROK’s adoption of an Indo-Pacific strategy, which puts his country squarely behind the US and its other treaty allies in defending the rules-based order in the region. The Yoon administration also pushed for adopting the ROK-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI).
The KASI was announced in Cambodia at the 2022 South Korea-ASEAN summit. This new policy is based on the centrality of ASEAN and the ROK’s firm support for its centrality in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also premised on full support for the regional security architecture centered on ASEAN, with Japan, the ROK, and the US adopting their respective Indo-Pacific strategies in seeking new areas of cooperation with Southeast Asian countries. Specifically, this would require Japan, the ROK, and the US to launch an annual trilateral Indo-Pacific dialogue and maritime security cooperation framework to support ASEAN member states and the Pacific Island countries in developing their respective naval capabilities.
In the past, Seoul’s policy toward ASEAN was focused primarily on expanding economic partnerships. The KASI provides that Seoul would seek strategic coordination with the ASEAN member-states in cooperation with national security and defense.
President Yoon attended the ASEAN summit in Indonesia to show the ROK’s growing economic clout and, more importantly, to underscore his administration’s plan to boost ROK-ASEAN relations. In this respect, he planned to announce initiatives that would strengthen ROK-ASEAN cooperation in cyber and maritime security and digital innovation.
During the summit, President Yoon urged ASEAN member states to align themselves with the three-way security partnership of Japan, the ROK, and the US. He explained to the Southeast Asian countries that the three security partners are coordinating their respective Indo-Pacific strategies to support the ASEAN-led regional security architecture. Yoon and ASEAN leaders also adopted a joint statement on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
President Yoon also held several bilateral meetings on the side of the summit with leaders of Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, and Cook Island. Among these was his meeting with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. This meeting was significant because the two countries are long-standing security partners that began during the Korean War; both are US allies, and both administrations have adopted their respective Indo-Pacific strategies that are aimed at ensuring the peace and stability in the South China Sea that is deemed as essential for the order and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region.
The ROK’s engagement with ASEAN in general and the Philippines in particular is a significant regional development worth watching, especially in light of recent security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. We hope that our shared values with the South Koreans would propel this partnership to even greater heights during these precarious times.
Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is a trustee and program convenor of Stratbase ADR Institute.