By Kyle Ferrier and Sang Hyun Back
Established in 1953 in response to the North Korean threat, the significance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance today extends far beyond the Peninsula. As like-minded democratic and advanced economies, both countries work closely on a diverse array of issues around the world such as climate change, global health, and cyber security. South Korea also deployed troops in support of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. New strategies from Seoul and Washington for engaging with Southeast and South Asia also now provide new opportunities to further expand the relationship.
The U.S. championed, multi-stakeholder-driven “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” was first outlined by U.S. President Donald Trump at the 2017 APEC Summit in Vietnam. Joining the U.S. in advancing the strategy are Japan, Australia, and India – collectively known as “the Quad.” The strategy is predicated on the desire for freedom from coercion – notably from China – and the promotion of good governance among countries in the Asia-Pacific and South Asia. It is also built on three pillars: economics, governance, and security. While there is a general agreement among the Quad about what values they are seeking to promote in the region, each seems to have different priorities. Thus, despite some activity to implement shared ideals, the strategy is still an evolving one.
Although South Korea’s diplomatic values align with the Quad’s, Seoul’s strategic positioning between Washington and Beijing complicates its interest in the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Despite a need to protect itself from economic coercion from Beijing – best represented by China’s retaliation against the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, costing South Korean companies over $10 billion – Seoul is also reliant on Beijing’s help to resolve the North Korea issue and on China as an export market. Consequently, Seoul has been cautious about joining efforts that could be interpreted as “containing” China or could eventually force its hand to choose between Beijing and Washington.
Arguably the most significant cause for trepidation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in is the regional security architecture the U.S. plans to roll out focused on countering Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. South Korea has largely avoided getting embroiled in this issue to prevent further complicating relations with China. However, the Indo-Pacific Strategy still not only resonates with the Moon government’s “New Southern Policy,” but can also augment the ability of all parties to achieve their goals.
At a recent event in Washington, D.C. hosted by KEI and co-sponsored by the U.S. State Department and South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Park Jae-kyung, Senior Coordinator for South Korea’s Presidential Committee on the New Southern Policy, attributed the policy’s origins to a set of push and pull factors. On the push side is a need to diversify diplomatic and economic ties, highlighted by Beijing’s retaliation over THAAD, and on the pull side is the growing size of the already large ASEAN and South Asian economies. The policy centers on three Ps: prosperity, people, and peace – all three of which can easily further U.S.-South Korea interests.
The overlapping “prosperity” component of the New Southern Policy and the “economic” pillar of the Indo-Pacific Strategy are the clearest areas for the U.S. and South Korea to work together in implementing their respective approaches. Both focus on working with local governments and businesses to foster an environment conducive to sustainable economic growth, most notably through infrastructure development.
The Quad hopes to offer large, high-standard loans to compete with China’s Belt and Road projects. South Korea’s preference for lending to big projects in Southeast Asia, the quality and cooperative nature of its loans, as well as recent government efforts to direct more development assistance to ASEAN countries and India make Seoul an ideal partner in achieving these goals. Moreover, the competitiveness of Korean firms in building modern technology infrastructure, such as 5G, should make South Korea an even more attractive partner.
Even if not directly collaborating on the “people” and “peace” legs of the New Southern Policy, the U.S. and South Korea can both benefit from the other’s heightened engagement in the region in these areas. “People” entails new multiple entry visas, more aid for capacity building, and new government scholarships to attract students from the region to South Korea. While this will build stronger bilateral relationships, it again coincides with the aspirations of the Indo-Pacific Strategy by developing human capital and strengthening civil society in Southeast and South Asia.
South Korea’s increased security cooperation with ASEAN and India as part of the New Southern Policy’s “peace” element, though not formally part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, can still advance U.S. regional strategic interests. As part of Moon’s policy, Seoul plans to be more active on cooperating with its southern neighbors on shared security issues and non-traditional threats such as cyber security. South Korea has already stepped up its multilateral, joining the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and bilateral, convening a defense dialogue in Vietnam, engagement in recent months to carry out this agenda. These developments should be welcomed in Washington as facilitating the transition from an outdated “hub and spokes” model of U.S. alliances in the region to one where there is greater engagement among allies.
Delivering remarks at the recent KEI-hosted event, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Marc Knapper, said there “a lot of great things our two countries could do together by putting our heads together in figuring out how these two policies, these two visions, can complement each other.” As both of these visions continue to take shape, the shared values underlying the U.S.-South Korea alliance can present greater opportunities to advance the shared interests of both countries, regardless of label or even direct cooperation.
Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Sang Hyun Back is a graduate student with the Asian Studies program at George Washington University and an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.