This is the second in a two part series looking at Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Indo-Pacific Strategies of other governments. The first part can be found here.
In December of last year, President Yoon Suk Yeol released a key foreign policy document. The Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region outlines his administration’s key priorities in the region and provides a roadmap for future endeavors. Previously, at a summit with Southeast Asian leaders, President Yoon said he aimed “to create a free, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region through solidarity and cooperation with ASEAN and other major nations.” Experts say the strategy suggests Korea will pursue a cautious, but expanding role in the region, and that details yet to be announced will be critical to its success.
The strategy shows economic security will be a prominent aspect of Korean foreign policy going forward. The document opens with the observation that Indo-Pacific is “an economically and technologically dynamic region where our key partners of strategic industries such as semiconductors are located.” It cites data from Korean government sources that close to three quarters of Korean exports stay in the region, and is the source of two thirds of Korea’s imports. Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that these data points give “an indirect case for the preservation of geopolitical order…that seeks to uphold and maintain inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity, including with the elephant in the room—China.”
The strategy’s discussion of China – or rather, lack thereof – underscores Korea’s continuing ambiguity of how to deal with Beijing. It is identified as a key partner, which Seoul will seek “a sounder and more mature relationship as we pursue shared interests based on mutual respect and reciprocity, guided by international norms and rules.” While Indo-Pacific strategies published by states like the U.S. or Japan directly call out China, this is one of only two direct mentions of China in the entire document. The lack of strong words for Beijing is mildly unexpected, given President Yoon’s stark differences with his predecessor. “Criticizing Chinese actions but not identifying Beijing as the culprit is consistent with recent U.S.-South Korean joint presidential statements,” notes Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
To be sure, Korea does not give China a pass for its behavior. The strategy identifies the South China Sea as a critical sea line of communication and transit, and ties peace in the Taiwan Strait to peace on the Korean Peninsula and broader region. These comments on areas where China has pursued an assertive line are an important development in Korean foreign policy. “The strategy said South Korea really cares about maritime security, peace and stability, and prosperity,” said Dr. Sojeong Lee, a Global Security postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. “But also they said that the South China Sea is a really important sea route for trade.” Emphasizing the economic aspects of stability in the area, and not its security dimensions, is one way for Korea to be critical of Chinese actions without directly calling it out. “It’s a really clever way, compared to what the South Korean government did before in the past,” she said.
Building new partnerships and deepening existing ones are another prominent theme of the strategy. The Yoon administration says it will increase its cooperation with the Quad, consisting of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India. Public health, climate change, and emerging technology will be the priority areas for cooperation, but the strategy goes on to say Korea “will seek to gradually expand the scope of cooperation into other areas.” Professor Brad Glosserman of Tama University says that while Korea remains concerned about China, it is unlikely to coordinate with regional groupings like the Quad or AUKUS on harder security issues. “I expect more participation in things like the Chip 4 [initiative], since it too is very important to ROK concerns, and can be framed as a project to protect economic interests…than offensive (i.e. hurting China) even though it does both,” he said.
Trilateral cooperation with Japan has garnered most the most attention in Washington. The document reiterates the Yoon administration’s commitment to reversing the downward trend in bilateral relations with Tōkyō. But Dr. Kyuri Park, postdoctoral scholar at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, says less attention has been paid to cooperation between Korea, Japan, and China. Seoul says it will reinvigorate the Korea-Japan-China Trilateral Summit and Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, with a focus on clean energy and digital industries. “We seek to contribute to regional peace and stability by harmoniously developing ROK-US-Japan cooperation and ROK-Japan-China cooperation,” it says. These two axes of cooperation underscore the precarious position of Korea caught between the U.S. and China amid their strategic rivalry. “Trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Japan will be more about security and military matters,” says Dr. Park. “Whereas with China and Japan, it’ll be something more like economics or regional stability maintenance efforts.” Given Korea’s deep economic partnership with China, and its security relationship with the U.S., the document suggests Korea is trying to manage both sides equally. “It tells us something about how South Korea sees this issue of regional stability.” said Dr. Park. “Rather than just taking one side, one trilateral cooperation mechanism, South Korea also feels the need to also engage with China along with Japan.”
Now that the Yoon administration has released its strategy, it now needs to turn those ideas into actions. These details have yet to be determined, which is reflected in the document, which says that now “the relevant ministries of the ROK government will prepare detailed implementation plans based on this Indo-Pacific Strategy to enhance freedom, peace, and prosperity in the region.” While it is all good and well that Korea is committed to engaging with its neighbors for a better tomorrow, it’s not clear how Seoul will achieve that. Dr. Lee says that the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy presents a chance to expand Seoul’s leadership off the Korean Peninsula and into the wider region. “But how?” she said. “I think they missed the question of how to implement that strategy.”
The world must wait and see what the Yoon administration will do differently from its predecessors. While Korea in the past may have been content to remain focused on its domestic territory, the Indo-Pacific strategy demonstrates the why Seoul must now expand its focus to look at the broader maritime domain of its region. “The ocean is the way to project your power. If you stand on land, you cannot go beyond it,” says Dr. Lee. “The ocean is the way to move beyond.”
President Yoon has emphasized his vision of Korea as a “Global Pivotal State,” an idea that seems to have filtered down the ranks. Dr. Park says that in conversations with Korean diplomats, “one of the impressions that I’m getting is that South Korea definitely envisions itself as a middle power…that has more responsibility and has to engage in many more issues beyond Korean Peninsula.” While the details will be important, and unseen complications may yet arise, the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy seems like a good place to start.
Terrence Matsuo is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Shutterstock.