“Korea Finds in ASEAN a Like-Minded Partner on the Indo-Pacific” by Hoang Thi Ha

2019/103, 2 December 2019

The ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Commemorative Summit was convened on 25-26 November in Busan to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their dialogue relations. The high-profile event showcased President Moon Jae-in’s strong commitment to bring ASEAN-ROK partnership to a new height under his New Southern Policy (NSP). One key take-away from the Summit is Seoul’s more forthcoming support of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Adopted by the ASEAN leaders in June 2019, the AOIP is ASEAN’s response towards the emerging Indo-Pacific discourse. It provides the lens through which ASEAN perceives the Indo-Pacific, anchored in its overriding objective of maintaining regional autonomy and ASEAN centrality.
At the ASEAN-ROK senior officials meeting in July, the ROK expressed its support of the AOIP “as a guide for ASEAN’s engagement and cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region.” The Busan Summit saw Seoul take one step further with the Co-Chairs’ Statement encouraging that the Outlook be used “as a guide in promoting possible cooperation within the existing and future initiatives of ASEAN and its external partners, including the ROK”. President Moon reiterated that the ROK welcomes the AOIP at the post-Summit press conference.

The ROK’s support for the AOIP contrasts with its reluctance to embrace the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy. In fact, Seoul’s posturing towards the Indo-Pacific is unique among all major American allies. For example, both Australia and the ROK are middle powers that are facing the predicament of securing US military engagement despite their growing economic dependence on China. But Canberra had embarked on the Indo-Pacific discourse even before the US caught the bug in late 2017. Geography aside (Australia looks out to the two oceans while the ROK is well within the East Asian remit), what made the ROK sit tight is Seoul’s extra care not to be seen as jumping on the China containment bandwagon, and its apprehension towards the Free and Open Indo-Pacific as originally a Japanese idea.

In recent months, the ROK has been somewhat less reticent. During his July visit to Washington, President Moon sought “harmonious cooperation between Korea’s NSP and the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy”. He stopped short of endorsing the US’ Indo-Pacific version while being open to opportunities of synergy based on “the principles of openness, inclusiveness and transparency”. The ROK’s adjustment is thus a tactical and pragmatic move rather than a paradigm shift in its perspective towards the Indo-Pacific.

Seoul’s reservations on the perceived exclusion and containment of China in the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy are shared by ASEAN member states. ASEAN thus formulated an Indo-Pacific outlook that is qualitatively distinguishable from the American version to assuage China’s concerns. It envisages an inclusive regional architecture and emphasises dialogue and cooperation over confrontation. It stays away from strategic competition by adopting a development-oriented approach that views Indo-Pacific less as a security-driven phenomenon and more as an economic and connectivity-linked construct.
The AOIP therefore ticks all the right boxes as a multilateral platform from which the ROK could tiptoe towards the Indo-Pacific while avoiding to be caught in the US-China rivalry minefield. Apart from that, both ASEAN and Seoul share the strategic imperative to diversify partnerships so as to hedge against uncertainties and vulnerabilities in their respective relations with the two major powers, to expand the menu of choice rather than to see it be reduced to a binary choice.

The AOIP’s development-oriented approach also dovetails with the ROK’s pragmatic economic considerations in its engagement with ASEAN. Some even call it the “mercantilist” aspect of the NSP. The AOIP’s three priorities for practical cooperation – maritime cooperation, connectivity and sustainable development – are the niche areas that Korean businesses and technologies can tap on. President Moon’s visits to ten ASEAN member states over the past two years have been characterised by many business cooperation agreements signed between Korean companies and the host countries, especially in maritime defense industry, infrastructure development, smart city development, and Industrial Revolution 4.0.

The ROK’s embrace of the AOIP thus appears to be more pragmatic than strategic. It does not remove Seoul’s ambivalence towards the Indo-Pacific, which is conditioned not only by the ROK’s geopolitical constraints but also its attachment to the goal of establishing an East Asian Community (EAC). References to “EAC” are peppered throughout President Moon’s speeches. At the Busan Summit press conference, he said “we agreed to more closely work together for a peaceful East Asian Community”, and “to create an East Asian era of peace and prosperity through Asian cooperation.” While the configuration and content of the EAC have never been made clear, it is often associated with the exclusive East Asian regionalism which is at odds with the trans-oceans Indo-Pacific construct. For all its support of the AOIP, Seoul has not yet found equilibrium between its cherished East Asian identity and the unfolding Indo-Pacific era.

Ms. Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher (Political-Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.