By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
South Korea unveiled its long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy on December 28th, the month after Yoon Suk-yeol’s announced its key elements. The full title of the strategy is ‘Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region’, which already indicates the vision behind it and its links to the US’s emphasis on a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Technically, the New Southern Policy of the Moon Jae-in government served as South Korea’s first strategy towards the region. However, the Yoon government’s strategy is the first to explicitly refer to the region, to have freedom as a central component, and to delineate the regional scope of South Korea’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific region. On the latter, the Yoon government has taken a wide-ranging approach, considering the region to cover from Eastern Africa to the Pacific coast of Latin America. Having fully embraced the Indo-Pacific geopolitical construct, Seoul is poised to become a more active player in the region.
What are the key elements of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy?
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy makes clear that the Yoon government believes that values should be as important as interests as part of its approach to the Indo-Pacific. This has been a core element of Yoon’s foreign and security policy, with the president regularly emphasising the role of values. Certainly, Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy indicates that international norms and standards, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights will be part of the policy towards the region. At the same time, the Indo-Pacific strategy recognises the reality of a region in which very few countries are full democracies, and, unsurprisingly, places South Korea’s security, economic, and diplomatic interests at its core.
A salient element of Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy is the extent to which it sides with the US’s own approach towards the region, to the detriment of China. The strategy is full of references to security, economic, and diplomatic cooperation with the US, as well as other ‘like-minded’ partners: Australia and Japan, especially, as well as Canada, France, Germany, the EU, New Zealand, or the UK. In sharp contrast, China is mentioned sparingly and cooperation with Beijing is discussed only in the context of trade and economics. The Indo-Pacific strategy even makes a direct line between peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and in the Korean Peninsula, a clear reference to China’s (perceived) destabilising actions in the former. Having said that, the strategy has ‘inclusiveness’ as one of its principles, a coded reference to potential cooperation with China and to distancing from calls to isolate Beijing. Even in this case, however, inclusiveness is linked to reliable and mutually beneficial partnerships—an indication that cooperation with China in the Indo-Pacific will only be possible if South Korea believes that it is benefiting from it as well.
One other element to highlight is that Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy puts Southeast Asia at the geographical heart of the Indo-Pacific region, with South Asia, and in particular India, an increasingly important second. The strategy even makes a nod to the concept of ‘ASEAN centrality’. In this respect, Yoon’s Indo-Pacific strategy follows from Moon’s New Southern Policy, which focused on ASEAN, especially, and India. South Korean policy-makers and strategists understand that this is a key region for Sino-American competition, particularly its waters. Furthermore, South Korean firms have increasing economic interests across the region. Thus, for Seoul it makes sense to prioritise these sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific.
What will be South Korea’s main areas of action in the Indo-Pacific?
South Korea will prioritise the promotion of international norms and the rule of law across the Indo-Pacific. In common with many other Asian countries, South Korea has been increasingly alarmed by China’s assertive approach to territorial disputes in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas. Furthermore, Seoul is also concerned by North Korea’s challenge to the non-proliferation regime, the lack of a global cyber governance regime especially due to the position of China and Russia, or the weakening of the WTO-centred global trade regime, in this case under pressure from both China and the US. Thus, the Yoon government believes that it should push for a rules-based order that can bring stability and from which it can benefit. This is a position that it shares with other middle powers in the region including Australia, Japan, or countries in Southeast Asia.
At the same time, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy does not take a naïve approach towards the region and highlights security as a key area of action. Among the many security issues highlighted by Seoul, nuclear non-proliferation, maritime security and cyber security stand out. In the case of nuclear non-proliferation, the Indo-Pacific strategy draws a direct parallel between North Korea’s nuclear programme and the stability of the whole Indo-Pacific. Thus, Seoul wants to engage in capacity building across the region to prevent nuclear proliferation. As for maritime and cyber security, South Korea emphasises its wish to work together with ‘like-minded’ partners, particularly the US as well as Australia and Japan but also others as noted above. In this respect, the Yoon government is indicating that it wants to become more actively involved in joint exercises, information sharing, or capacity building. South Korea also notes that it wants to expand minilateral cooperation with NATO or the Quad in these and other security areas.
One last important area of action for the Yoon government in the Indo-Pacific, as explained in the strategy, is non-traditional security, particularly climate change, energy, and health. These are areas which Moon’s New Southern Policy also focused on, and that build on prior long-standing cooperation between South Korea on the one hand and countries in Southeast and South Asia on the other—particularly climate change and health. The focus on these areas also attends to the needs and priorities of countries in the region that want to develop their capacity in them. Other than the security element of ongoing or potential disruptions in these three areas, South Korea also sees a business opportunity in selling and transferring the technology and expertise of its firms to the region.