South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Signals Seoul’s Re-engagement in the Region

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

The recent flurry of diplomacy by Republic of Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol – his overtures to Japan and his summit with US President Joe Biden – indicates that Seoul is intent on implementing the Indo-Pacific Strategy it launched in November last year. Sampa Kundu of the ASEAN-India Centre at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries in New Delhi writes that South Korea is among the latest countries in the region to embrace the Indo-Pacific concept in the context of the US-China great power rivalry. 

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Signals Seoul’s Re-engagement in the Region

On the same Indo-Pacific page: US President Biden and his wife welcome South Korean counterpart Yoon and his spouse to the White House on April 26 (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter)

On April 26, 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol visited the United States to celebrate the 70th anniversary of US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. This visit was significant in terms of enhancing defense and security cooperation, collaboration on cybersecurity and emerging technologies, and the economic partnership between the two countries. Yoon and his American counterpart Joe Biden announced a wide range of agreements including the launch of a Nuclear Consultative Group, expansion of joint military training exercises, planning for  semiconductor manufacturing, the establishment of a working group on supply chains, and the setting up of a Cyber Strategic Framework and a Next Generation Critical and Emerging Technologies Dialogue. 

In this context, it is worthwhile to look at the Indo-Pacific strategy of the ROK, its salient features and the major shifting geopolitical trends in the region, particularly how middle powers such as South Korea are managing the tricky diplomacy required in this era of great power rivalry between the US and China. 

In November 2022, President Yoon announced the Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region at the 23rd ASEAN-ROK Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. South Korea was only the latest country in the region to articulate a vision for Indo-Pacific mega-regionalism. Japan, India, Australia and ASEAN had already adopted the Indo-Pacific concept as the centerpiece in their respective foreign policies, releasing their own strategies or at least offering their perspective. For instance, Southeast Asian countries had put forward the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP), while India integrated its Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiatives (IPOI) into its foreign policy. 

Neighbors being neighborly: The South Korean and Japanese leaders and their wives on a night out in Ginza, Tokyo (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)

Neighbors being neighborly: The South Korean and Japanese leaders and their wives on a night out in Ginza, Tokyo (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy is dynamic, practical and edifying. It reminds us of the geostrategic considerations regarding the Indo-Pacific, the relevant 21st-Century challenges and then provides an optimistic perspective to address them through bilateral, minilateral and multilateral cooperation. At its start, the document emphasizes the geostrategic magnitude of the Indo-Pacific, acknowledging the ROK’s dependence on the region, which accounts for 78 percent of the country’s exports and 67 percent of its imports. South Korea’s top 20 trading partners are located in the Indo-Pacific. When it comes to maritime trade, the vast waterways from the Strait of Hormuz, through the Indian Ocean, past the Malacca Strait and across the South China Sea are of paramount importance to Seoul.

Liberal democratic values

The document also stresses on ROK’s democratic political system and structure, focusing on human rights that it presents as a cross-sectoral factor critical to all aspects of sustainable development. The narrative of South Korea’s ascendency from poor country to one of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donors is underpinned by its recent history of political and economic transformation driven by solidarity and cooperation at the regional and international levels and its adherence to liberal-democratic values domestically. 

Taking the same tone, the Indo-Pacific strategy goes on to condemn Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine, which has the potential to impact negatively the security and economic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Like many other countries in the region, the ROK is committed to humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and to its reconstruction. This substantiates South Korea’s acclaim as a model democratic country not just in the region but also the world. It is interesting to note that President Yoon served as a co-host (along with the leaders of Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Zambia) of Biden's second Summit for Democracy in Washington at the end of March.  

The geopolitics of bilateral, trilateral and minilateral cooperation 

As a geopolitical construct, the Indo-Pacific has gained prominence in current international affairs, owing to the efforts by countries including the US, Japan, Australia and India. The active efforts of these countries to promote the Indo-Pacific are aimed at striking a balance in the great power game in the international realm and between each nation’s own national and global interests. 

Th ROK’s strategy does not fail to mention and acknowledge the importance of its bilateral, trilateral and multilateral engagements with the countries in the region. It expresses its appreciation that ROK-US alliance has been serving as a crucial foundation for peace and prosperity in the Korean Peninsula for the past 70 years. Also, the trilateral partnership among the US, Japan and the ROK is cited as a valuable platform for addressing a multitude of pressing issues including the nuclear and missile threats posed by North Korea, as well as disruptions in global supply chains. The document refers to the ample opportunities to foster trilateral cooperation – the ROK with the US and Japan, with the US and Australia, or with China and Japan – to address various regional challenges such as supply chains, critical minerals, emerging technologies, cybersecurity and climate change.  

The strategy also cites the need to rejuvenate the Trilateral Summit among China, Japan and ROK and set up a secretariat for the grouping. China is a crucial factor in the strategy. South Korea aims to balance its geographic, military and economic vulnerabilities to China with its growing dependence on US-led alliance systems for its security. The US has discerned the geostrategic importance of middle powers in Asia (especially East, Southeast and South Asia) and has worked to accommodate their interests. In 2021, the Biden administration announced an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance in which it is mentioned that Washington will support China’s neighbors and commercial partners against Chinese coercion and aggression. 

In the same vein, South Korea has made overtures to Japan, after a period of tense relations. The two countries have had significant differences and major rows over several issues in the past. But early this year, Yoon became the first Korean president in 12 years to visit its neighbor. The president and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio talked about reviving shuttle diplomacy. Kishida is likely to pay a return visit to the ROK soon. Seoul and Tokyo are working to revamp their bilateral relationship. Any improvement will contribute to the peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. 

Trilateral tête-à-tête in Incheon, South Korea, May 2 : Finance ministers and central bank governors of China, Japan and Korea met in person for the first time in nearly four years (Credit: Yonhap)

Trilateral tête-à-tête in Incheon, South Korea, May 2 : Finance ministers and central bank governors of China, Japan and Korea met in person for the first time in nearly four years (Credit: Yonhap)

The ROK, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are the Asia-Pacific partners (AP4) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The leaders of the four countries met their counterparts in June 2022 in Spain to strengthen solidarity and cooperation in the region. Minilateral cooperation (e.g., among Australia, New Zealand and the ROK) is another strategic building block of greater regional cooperation. The ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy refers to India as a special regional partner with whom Seoul is pursuing cooperation in the fields of advanced IT and space technologies, diplomacy and defense. The need to upgrade the ROK-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership is also highlighted in the document. 

Regional Cooperation, ASEAN and the ROK

Yoon has frequently mentioned the important position of ASEAN in his administration’s Indo-Pacific approach. His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, had done the same, as evident in his New Southern Policy (NSP) and NSP Plus framework. Yoon has initiated the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI) aimed at improving relations between the ROK and ASEAN member states. ASEAN is South Korea’s second-largest trading partner with around US$176.5 billion in trade in 2021. ASEAN is also one of the biggest recipients of ROK official development assistance. 

Seoul has a special strategic partnership arrangement with Indonesia, a comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam, a strategic partnership with Thailand, and strong bilateral relations with the Mekong Delta nations as well as other maritime Southeast Asian countries. ROK-ASEAN ties go beyond economic and strategic, covering the socio-cultural. As an acknowledgement to ASEAN’s efforts towards an inclusive and peaceful Indo-Pacific, the ROK’s Indo-pacific strategy fully endorses the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. 

Diplomacy and the Indo-Pacific

Overall, the Indo-Pacific strategy document of the ROK is a major contribution to positive “contributive diplomacy”, as opposed to exclusionary or punitive diplomacy. It underscores the need for cooperation in the region and the importance of showcasing democratic values and ethics. This is critical at a time when diplomacy appears to be more about weaponization of issues from trade to technology and great powers and others have been hurling sanctions at each other. The ROK asserts that it will pursue “cooperative public diplomacy”, taking advantage of the growing global reach of Korean pop music, movies, TV dramas and games that engage youth and promote cross-cultural appreciation and exchange. 

The Indo-Pacific strategy of ROK will secure new diplomatic achievements for Seoul as it re-engages in the region. It officially brings into the Indo-Pacific framework a major economic power and an emerging global diplomatic force. Days after Yoon unveiled his countries Indo-Pacific blueprint, Canada presented its own strategy. New Zealand, which has joined the American-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), could be the next player in the region to outline a systematic regional approach. The articulation of Indo-Pacific strategies by different countries not only indicates the geopolitical shift in perspective in a region where the Beijing-Washington rivalry looms large, with the US the main guarantor of security and China the biggest economic player. The mobilization of middle powers such as South Korea as they position themselves in this increasingly complex context will be a game changer in the geopolitical and geo-economic dynamics of the region and indeed the world.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Sampa Kundu

Sampa Kundu

ASEAN-India Centre, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS)

Sampa Kundu joined the ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) at Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) in October 2021 as a consultant. She completed her PhD from the Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. At the AIC, she is working on various nuances of ASEAN-India relations. She has previously worked with MP-IDSA, Amity University and Symbiosis International (Deemed) University. She has written peer-reviewed articles, commentaries and book chapters for nationally and internationally reputed publishers.

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