South Korea's Indo-Pacific policy

South Korea's Indo-Pacific policy

President Yoon Suk-yeol announced the Republic of Korea's Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region (hereafter Indo-Pacific Strategy), and Korea-Asean Solidarity Initiative (KASI) at the Asean-Korea Summit held in November in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His core message at the summit was simple: Korea aims to upgrade and elevate its partnership with Asean to the next level. In response, Asean leaders welcomed President Yoon's initiative. The significance of Korea's recent diplomatic move should be analysed in diverse aspects.

With the vision of establishing a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific, Korea's Indo-Pacific Strategy is based on the three principles of cooperation, namely inclusiveness, trust, reciprocity; and aims to promote and strengthen strategic partnerships tailored to the sub-regions: the North Pacific; Southeast Asia and Asean; South Asia; Oceania; African states in the Indian Ocean; and Europe. Moreover, Seoul has proposed nine priority areas of implementation: establishment of an Indo-Pacific regional order based on rules and shared norms, promotion of rule of law and human rights, strengthening of non-proliferation and counterterrorism efforts, enhancement of comprehensive security cooperation, expansion of economic security networks, promotion of science and technology cooperation and contribution to bridging the digital divide, leading regional cooperation on climate change and energy security, promotion of tailored development cooperation partnerships and facilitation of mutual understanding and exchange.

KASI is a tailored strategy towards Asean in this larger regional framework of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. It seeks to strengthen political-security cooperation in addition to the economic, social, and cultural cooperation that previous Korean administrations have focused on. In the political-security area, comprehensive security is the key agenda. In the economic field, Korea has proposed to expand cooperation in the field of environment, vaccines and biotechnology and also to include and strengthen digital trade cooperation in the framework of the Asean-Korea FTA to reinvigorate cooperation in future industries such as electric vehicles, batteries and digital technology, in which Asean is highly interested. In this process, Korea has expressed its unwavering support for Asean Centrality and Asean Outlook on the Indo-pacific (AOIP), maintaining consistency in its foreign policy of emphasising the importance of Asean.

Korea's Indo-Pacific Strategy highlights inclusiveness as one of the three principles. It is a principle that Asean values as well. The Republic of Korea, Asean, and India, in particular, emphasise the importance of inclusiveness. By doing so, Korea is conveying the message that it does not intend, just like Asean, to target or exclude a particular country amid the ongoing competition between the United States and China and that it seeks to establish a non-zero-sum environment where everyone can benefit.

President Yoon has also proposed to the Asean leaders, with the purpose of enhancing our future development, to elevate the Asean-Korea Partnership into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), the highest level of cooperation in 2024, which marks the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Asean and Korea. Seoul also announced that it would double cooperation funds related to Asean until 2027 to promote future cooperation. Korea has unequivocally declared its will and determination to establish the highest level of partnership with Asean by going beyond the economic partnership and strengthening all-around cooperation, including foreign policy and security cooperation. Korea's strategy towards Asean in a broader framework is now ready. However, the real issue is the implementation, and the devil is always in the detail. We cannot stress more the importance of establishing an effective implementation plan to promote the common interests of both Asean and Korea. Since Indonesia, Asean's 2023 chair, will be prioritising the implementation of four areas of cooperation of the AOIP (maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, economic cooperation), particular attention must be paid to what Asean has to say, including the abovementioned priority of Indonesia. Their voices should be reflected in Korea's policy towards Asean.

Suh Jeon-in is former ROK ambassador to Asean.

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