As ASEAN and ROK leaders meet, Joanne Lin looks at the Republic of Korea (ROK)’s growing ambition in the Indo-Pacific under President Yoon and its implications on ASEAN.
The emerging Indo-Pacific concept embraced by the United States and other regional powers took central place once again as the political leaders of ASEAN and South Korea met at the 24th ASEAN-ROK Summit yesterday. Almost a year since the launch of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI), both sides adopted a Joint Statement on the Cooperation on the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
The statement is certainly a win-win outcome for both ASEAN and the ROK. The AOIP helps ASEAN remain relevant in the region despite its decreasing effectiveness in addressing geostrategic challenges. For the ROK — a newcomer in the Indo-Pacific region, its determination to be a “global pivotal state” requires the support of ASEAN.
The launch of the ROK Indo-Pacific Strategy at the ASEAN-ROK Summit in November last year coupled with ROK Foreign Minister Park Jin’s assurance that ASEAN is the new “centerpiece” of Korea’s strategy has made ASEAN a winner. Both sides have identified a long list of common objectives in the joint statement: the promotion of a rules-based multilateral order, respect for international law and numerous cooperation activities in the areas of maritime and economic cooperation, connectivity, and sustainable development.
KASI, which is specially tailored for ASEAN, seeks to double down in eight key areas, focusing mainly on strategic issues including enhancing ASEAN-ROK security cooperation and coordination on maritime and defence, emerging areas such as digitalisation and e-mobility, as well as jointly addressing regional and global challenges. It focuses on what the previous Moon Jae-in administration failed to address in its conservative New Southern Policy consisting of practical and functional cooperation.
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s strategic ambition will certainly help increase ROK’s standing as a middle-power in the Indo-Pacific. The State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey shows that Southeast Asian perceptions of the ROK are improving. Perceptions of ROK’s political and strategic power influence almost tripled from 0.6% last year to 1.7% this year. Its economic power influence doubled from 0.5% last year to 1.0% this year (that said, however, the increases started from a low base).
The ROK can certainly play a positive role in the region, given that it has no historical baggage, unlike Japan or other colonial powers. As a middle power, its defence posture is not perceived to be hostile to the region. The ROK’s willingness to participate actively in all ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus also demonstrate its support for multilateralism.
In Southeast Asia, ROK’s rapidly growing defence industry (the fastest growing arms exporter to the region and the world) and the semi-conductor sector help to boost its strategic standing. Apart from strategic influence, Korea’s rising soft power influence through popular culture such as K-pop has been welcomed in the region. It is thus not surprising that its relations with ASEAN is expected to be upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership next year in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-ROK dialogue relations.
However, despite the region’s welcome, South Korea knows that strengthening relations with ASEAN will not be sufficient to achieve the status of a “global pivotal state”. For the ROK to increase its status, it would need to double down on managing North Korea’s threat together with the US and Japan. Beyond that, Seoul may have ambitions to manage the growing threats of China — a country that is seen to be on the side of North Korea.
ROK’s preoccupation with North Korea’s nuclear threats is clearly evidenced in defence minister Lee Jong-Sup’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2023 which not only focused entirely on North Korea but also linked peace on the Korean Peninsula to the security of the Indo-Pacific region. Strengthening the ROK, US, and Japan alliance will certainly boost the three countries’ resolve and capability to jointly address North Korea’s provocation.
Common mutual concerns have motivated Japan and South Korea to put aside historical animosity to walk in lockstep with the US. The historical standalone trilateral summit between the US, ROK, and Japan in Camp David on 18 August highlights greater strategic alignment between the three countries than between ASEAN and the ROK. Apart from North Korea, the joint statement also underscored similar strategic concerns in regards to China (particularly in the South China Sea) and common objectives in the Indo-Pacific to promote democracy and human rights. South Korea’s firmer stance on China is also evidenced in a rare statement issued by the South Korean Embassy in Manila expressing concerns over China’s use of water cannons against Philippines Coast Guard vessels.
Apart from the Japan-ROK-US trilateral, the ROK is a NATO partner in the Indo-Pacific region. Its aspiration to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) speaks of its ambition for greater alliance with the US and its partners, as opposed to staying neutral. As such, regional respondents in the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey, have viewed the ROK as less credible in hedging against the uncertainties of US-China rivalry (from 6.8% in 2022 to 3.2% in 2023).
Against the realities of geopolitics, ASEAN and the ROK will have different strategic priorities. As much as the ROK is preoccupied with courting the US and its allies, the new commitments toward ASEAN as demonstrated in the KASI has shown that the regional bloc still matters. However, ASEAN should also understand that it is not the most important player in the region. In fact, ASEAN centrality is under challenge. If anything, the advent of KASI and the ROK’s Indo-Pacific Strategy means that the grouping will need to coexist with the growing number of non-ASEAN initiatives touted by other major powers.
ASEANFocus+ articles are timely critical insight pieces published by the ASEAN Studies Centre.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.