South Korea: A Global Pivotal State, Not Quite
South Korea has far-reaching geopolitical ambitions but focusing on the regions closest to it will bring more dividends in a competitive world.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has been on a roll. At the White House last month, U.S. President Joseph Biden and President Yoon showed that their two countries are in lockstep, be it in countering North Korea’s nuclear programme, assisting Ukraine in its war against Russia, or improving ties with Tokyo.
Closer to home, President Yoon aims to increase Seoul’s role and contribution to the region as a “global pivotal state” — a term highlighted in South Korea’s Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region released last November. He is also advocating the new Korean-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI). First announced at the ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit in November 2022, KASI seeks to elevate ASEAN-ROK relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. It also seeks to increase the ROK’s regional standing through a suite of proposals to promote strategic coordination and comprehensive security cooperation.
Every new administration in South Korea trots out its own foreign policy doctrine and Yoon’s initiatives are not much different from his predecessors’. While the ROK’s ambitions should be lauded, it is unlikely to measure up to its goal of becoming a “global pivotal state.”
Granted, KASI and President Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be music to the ears of Southeast Asian states. ASEAN will welcome complementarities between the ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). ASEAN will also appreciate South Korea’s willingness to incorporate China – often deliberately excluded by its dialogue partners – into regional cooperation efforts.
President Yoon’s foreign policy is consistent with that of his predecessors: closer interactions with ASEAN will give South Korea geopolitical ballast and reduce economic dependence on China at a time of intensified U.S.-China rivalry. President Yoon’s KASI and his predecessor’s New Southern Policy, which had three pillars: People, Prosperity, and Peace, are similar. In KASI, “freedom” has replaced “peace”. Another shift in nuance is the use of new language pushing back at China’s growing influence: opposition to the militarisation of the South China Sea (SCS) and changes to the maritime status quo in the region. Even so, such language borrows heavily from the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” (FOIP) already used by Japan and its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partners Australia, India, and the U.S.
It remains to be seen whether KASI and South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy would be sufficient to augment its strategic role in the region. For one, South Korea remains a minnow among giants such as Japan and the U.S. In the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey, South Korea rose in its ratings as one of the region’s most influential powers but still ranked seventh, behind Japan, China, and the European Union. South Korea also ranked seventh in the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, just above Singapore and Indonesia.
Seoul is ambitious in its desire to become a “global pivotal state” but its ambition should be tempered with a stronger dose of realism.
Compared to other middle powers such as Japan and Australia, South Korea’s geopolitical interests are more narrowly defined. Fundamentally, North Korea’s nuclear and military threat will remain Seoul’s top preoccupation, with other major regional concerns – such as the SCS, Taiwan Strait tensions and the Senkaku/ Diaoyu disputes – ranking much lower in Seoul’s list of priorities.
Moreover, South Korea does not possess the same diplomatic clout and resources as other Asian middle powers like Japan and India. Apart from ASEAN-led forums, it is not part of any key regional minilaterals such as the Quad, AUKUS or the FOIP coalition. These minilaterals are giving China some cause for pause, as Beijing continues to assert itself in the region, particularly in hotspots such as the SCS. As a middle power seeking “global pivotal state” status, Seoul’s absence from such minilaterals is telling.
In the regional and global stakes, comparing South Korea to its traditional rival Japan reveals the former’s status in context. Japan is seen as a key Asian state whose actions have global implications: in 1997, Japan committed to providing logistical and non-combat support for American military operations in “areas surrounding Japan”. Even so, Japan does not have global ambitions; it just tries to make a difference where it can. The late Japanese premier Shinzo Abe pulled out all the stops to tamp down the isolationist instincts of former U.S. President Donald Trump, when Trump hinted at abandoning Washington’s longstanding alliances with Seoul and Tokyo. When the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, it was Japan (and Australia) who midwifed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), now one of the world’s biggest trading blocs. Japan has forked out significantly more finances and resources at US$600 million compared to US$40 million by South Korea to assist Ukraine in its defence against Russia.
Nevertheless, it is historic that Yoon, in his 7 May 2023 trip to meet Japanese premier Fumio Kishida, has mended fences with Tokyo by reviving an intelligence-sharing agreement and restarting a trilateral dialogue with Washington. That said, Tokyo has been more clear-eyed in challenging Beijing by seeking to double its defence spending, ostensibly to deter Chinese aggression. Seoul plans to increase defence spending by 7 per cent annually in the next five years but it has cautiously clarified that such an expansion is directed at North Korea. If Seoul is serious about being part of the wider U.S. alliance network and its bid to manage the China challenge, it might need to take a leaf from Tokyo’s playbook.
As a middle power, Seoul is ambitious in its desire to become a “global pivotal state” but its ambition should be tempered with a stronger dose of realism. No one would criticise Seoul for aiming its sights lower: becoming a credible pivotal state, not globally but regionally.
William Choong is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Managing Editor at Fulcrum.
Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Lead Researcher (Political-Security) at the Centre.