By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
The Yoon Suk-yeol government issued South Korea’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy on December 28th. The strategy emphasises cooperation with “like-minded” partners as a key element of Seoul’s approach towards the region. This means, above all, the US, followed by Australia and Japan. However, South Korea has been seeking to diversify its foreign, security, and economic links well beyond East Asia and the Asia-/Indo-Pacific region for decades now, a trend that has accelerated in recent years as a result of ongoing tensions with China and the Donald Trump presidency. In this context, Europe has emerged as an increasingly important partner for South Korea. This is reflected in Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which lists the EU, France, Germany, and the UK as potential partners in the region—as well as NATO.
What are the key similarities between South Korea’s and Europe’s Indo-Pacific strategies?
The Yoon government’s Indo-Pacific strategy has many similarities with the strategies issued by the EU, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Above all, they call for cooperation with partners, especially those that are “like-minded” and share similar values. In practice, this suggests close cooperation with the US, above all, even if South Korea is more explicit about it than the EU. In fact, the Yoon government has been very explicit about the importance of values as part of its push to make South Korea a so-called Global Pivotal State (GPS). Critics will argue that stronger security ties with Vietnam or economic links with Saudi Arabia show that values are not central to Seoul’s foreign policy. But the point is that values will help to drive South Korea’s foreign policy, as it votes on North Korea, Russia, and Xinjiang/China at the UN show.
At the same time, both South Korea and Europe state that “inclusiveness” is part of their respective Indo-Pacific strategies. In a nutshell, this means that neither of them see isolation of China as desirable or realistic. However, engagement with China is conditional. Seoul seeks “trust” and “reciprocity” in its relationship with China. Meanwhile, the EU links cooperation to a “level playing field.” In practice, this means that South Korea and Europe seek for Beijing to change its behaviour and become more respectful of international norms if cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region is to happen.
Another relevant similarity between South Korea and Europe is that their understanding of the Indo-Pacific includes the Eastern coast of Africa and goes all the way to the Americas. In other words, they do not equate the Indo-Pacific region to, essentially, the waters surrounding Southeast and South Asia. This marks a difference with, above all, the US which is sometimes accused of focusing too heavily on the waters where its competition with China is most intense. Regardless of the merits of this accusation, what is true is that South Korea and Europe stress that the Indo-Pacific region includes a variety of countries and sub-regions. At the same time, however, both point out the importance of ASEAN centrality and seem to indicate that Southeast Asia, above all, and South Asia, to an extent, are the epicentre of Indo-Pacific geopolitical dynamics.
In which areas can we expect greater cooperation between South Korea and Europe?
Unsurprisingly, South Korea’s and Europe’s Indo-Pacific strategies highlight similar areas of action. Among them, maritime security merits particular attention. Both South Korea and European countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK want to expand their presence in the waters of the Indo-Pacific region, including through cooperation and joint activities with “like-minded” partners. Thus, we should expect a growing number of joint naval exercises together with the navies of the US, Australia, Canada, or Japan; table top exercises; port calls by European navies in Busan or Incheon; and capacity building with countries in Southeast and South Asia.
Cybersecurity is another area that South Korea and Europe agree is of particular importance. The Moon Jae-in government issued South Korea’s first-ever proper cybersecurity strategy in April 2019. In 2022, Seoul joined NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) shortly before Moon left office. The Yoon government is also prioritising cybersecurity as an area for South Korea to work closely with “like-minded” partners, with Seoul feeling threatened by China, North Korea, and Russia. With South Korea and the EU having signed their Digital Partnership last November and Seoul boosting ties in the cyber domain with countries such as the Netherlands, cybersecurity is an area ripe for stronger cooperation between South Korea and Europe. The NATO dimension could become particularly relevant, with South Korea’s membership of CCDCOE, Seoul having recently opened its diplomatic mission to NATO, and the Yoon government’s Indo-Pacific strategy highlighting the importance that Seoul ascribes to NATO-AP4 ties. Information and intelligence sharing, joint tabletop exercises, or capacity building in Southeast and South Asia are some of the areas in which we should expect Seoul and its European counterparts to work together more closely.
Economic security is the last area in which we should see South Korea and Europe expand their links. Supply chain resilience and joint science and technology projects are two areas of special relevance. Starting with the former, the leading position of South Korean firms in sectors such as semiconductors, electric batteries, or green shipping, as well as its focus on 6G, AI, robotics, or space rockets create opportunities for cooperation with Europe. This includes investment by European firms in South Korea, European countries seeking to attract South Korean factories and R&D facilities, and joint R&D projects involving the public and/or private sectors—particularly via the EU’s flagship research and innovation project Horizon Europe. The European Chips Act, once launched, could also serve to boost economic security links.