Over the last few years, the concept Indo-Pacific has come to influence the strategic discussions on international relations in Asia. As a spatial concept referring to the emergence of a new mega-regional construct integrating the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean regions, Indo-Pacific is fast superseding the three-decade-old Asia Pacific regional order. While there is a growing recognition of the interdependence between the two regions, countries have responded differently to the concept of Indo-Pacific. Although the rescaling of regional boundaries and reimagining of order appears to be a natural process reflecting new realities, but the strength of the emergent narrative is also an outcome of contesting regional geopolitical imaginations. The Indo-Pacific concept is widely regarded as a regional geopolitical order, shared among the United States (US) and its allies and partners in Asia, who are anxious about the 'rise of China'.[i] South Korea (Korea hereafter), despite being a US ally so far has been ambiguous in its approach to the Indo-Pacific. Mapping the evolution of Korean approach and geo-political imagination the paper explains Seoul's policy of engaging with the Indo-Pacific, without endorsing the concept, as a strategy of 'strategic ambiguity' to steer away from the vagaries of great power regional geopolitics and positioning itself as an independent regional actor.
Evolution of Korea's Indo-Pacific Approach
Though the concept Indo-Pacific has been around in strategic and foreign policy discourse for over a decade, it received very little attention in Korea until Washington endorsed the concept in 2017 with the announcement of the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" (FOIPS).[ii] Korea's earlier indifference to Indo-Pacific has been primarily because of the concept's association with Japan. Given the state of anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea on account of conflict over historical issues between the two countries, Indo-Pacific, a concept initiated and promoted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was an idea non grata in Seoul.[iii]
During his visit to Korea in November 2017, President Donald Trump stated that Washington views the US-Korea alliance as "the linchpin of security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region".[iv] President Trump's proposal to join the Indo-Pacific strategy caught Seoul off guard. The foreign ministry and the Presidential office were at odds with each other in their reaction. While the foreign ministry welcomed the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Presidential Office was indifferent in its response. Arguing that Korea sees little benefit from the Indo-Pacific strategy, the Presidential office later dismissed the proposal.[v]
Despite its initial scepticism of the Indo-Pacific idea, Korea began gradually responding to the multiple narratives that surrounded it. In the India-Korea joint vision issued during the visit of President Moon to India in July 2018 highlighted Korea's growing interest in the Indo-Pacific discourse. The vision document mentioned a "peaceful, stable, secure, free, open, inclusive and rules-based region" indicating a growing convergence between India's Act East Policy and Korea's New Southern Policy (NSP). In its outlook, the India-Korea shared-vision for regional order strikes a similar chord with India's vision for Indo-Pacific, though, without mentioning the 'Indo-Pacific' concept. However, it stated that Korea "took note of India's inclusive and cooperative vision for the Indo-Pacific region". [vi]
Korea has also welcomed the 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific' (AOIP). President Moon during the Korea-ASEAN commemorative summit in November 2019, said Korea "welcomes the 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific' announced by the ASEAN countries ….and we will join in regional cooperation based on ASEAN centrality."[vii] Taken together, the joint statement issued at the Summit and President Moon's remarks seem to indicate that Seoul is openly espousing the ASEAN's approach to Indo-Pacific.[viii] Both parties agreed to work together to "contribute to enhancing regional and international peace, security, stability, prosperity and partnership through the ASEAN-ROK (Republic of Korea) Strategic Partnership which supports sub-regional, regional and multilateral cooperation in order to realise mutual benefits for our people."[ix] Even while announcing its support to AOIP, what is interesting to note is the absence of any specific reference to Indo-Pacific in Seoul's statement.
Of late Korea has been taking positive steps to engage with the US Indo-Pacific strategy indicating an attempt to find common ground between FOIPS and NSP. During his Summit with President Donald Trump in June 2019, Korean President Moon Jae-in stated, "Under the regional cooperation principles of openness, inclusiveness and transparency, we have agreed to put forth harmonious cooperation between Korea's New Southern Policy and the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy."[x] Following up on the lead taken by the two leaders, a joint document issued in November 2017 stated:
"The Republic of Korea and the United States are working together to create a safe prosperous, and dynamic future for the Indo-Pacific region through cooperation between the Republic of Korea's New Southern Policy and the United States' Indo-Pacific Strategy based on the principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, respect for international norms, and ASEAN centrality".[xi]
The document outlined the regional cooperation between NSP and FOIPS in three categories; prosperity (energy, infrastructure, development loans, and the digital economy), people (good governance and civic society), and peace (Mekong region- water management and Pacific Island countries- climate change). However, the joint proposal has no mention of cooperation between the two countries on security in a traditional sense. [xii]
Korea has also shown interest in engaging with the Indo-Pacific strategy of Australia. During the second Korea-Australia 2+2 Dialogue in December 2019, Seoul agreed to find synergy between the 'New Southern Policy' and Australia's 'Indo-Pacific Strategy' "based on the principles of openness, inclusiveness, transparency, and respect for international norms".[xiii] As a first step towards regional partnership, Seoul and Canberra signed an agreement on regional development cooperation.[xiv]
Explaining Korea's Strategic Ambiguity
Korea's ambiguous approach to Indo-Pacific is on account of its perception that the concept itself is an integral element of regional geopolitical rivalries.[xv] Korean analysts interpreted Indo-Pacific as a Washington-led strategy to contain China, and endorsement of the idea would amount to an acknowledgement of joining the containment strategy.[xvi] The release of the US National Security Strategy in December 2017, which categorically called China a revisionist power and its identified the growing competition between free and repressive visions of the future international order as the most important challenge for Washington's foreign policy, reinforced Korean perception of FOIPS as a China containment strategy. [xvii] In this regard, Korean strategic commentators associated the Indo-Pacific mainly with QUAD or Quadrilateral grouping involving the US, Japan, India and Australia, to the extent of interpreting it as a US-led security arrangement to counter the rise of China and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[xviii] The timing was also critical. Washington's Indo-Pacific proposal came at a time when Seoul was making efforts to patch up its relations with China, which had deteriorated due to the THAAD controversy.[xix]
During the last three decades, Korea has successfully managed to strengthen its economic engagement with Beijing, while maintaining the security alliance with Washington. At present China is Korea's top economic partner. However, an escalating strategic competition between the US and China is constraining Korea's room for manoeuvring and autonomy. Therefore maintaining a delicate balance between Washington and Beijing has been a running theme in Korean foreign policy for some time. Since his inauguration in 2017, President Moon Jae-in had openly said that he is pursuing balanced diplomacy. According to Moon, Korea's
"relationship with China has become more important not only in terms of economic cooperation but also for strategic cooperation for the peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue. That is why I am pursuing balanced diplomacy with the US as well as China."[xx]
Seoul's attempt to maintain a balance between Washington and Beijing is equally reflected in the Korean approach to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[xxi] While Seoul has shown interest in finding common grounds between its New Northern Policy and New Southern Policy with BRI but it has not yet endorsed or openly supported Beijing's initiative.[xxii] Conflicting messages on BRI from Korean government officials further indicate Seoul's deliberate effort to maintain ambiguity on its approach to BRI.[xxiii]
Another important aspect of Korea's Indo-Pacific ambiguity has to do with Seoul's entanglement-abandonment dilemma vis-à-vis the US-Korea security alliance.[xxiv] Maintaining stability in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region is critical for Korea's trade, investment and energy interests. But the extended Indo-Pacific does not constitute a core geography for Seoul from a security perspective. The core security interests of Korea continue to be associated with the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asian region, focusing on the North Korean threat. Hence, the proposal to expand the scope of the alliance is received not so enthusiastically in Korea. This is for two other reasons also. First, it will substantially increase Seoul's cost of maintaining the alliance. Second, is the risk of entanglement. This means that Korea could be entrapped in a conflict that the US may be engaged in. Washington's proposal to make US-ROK alliance as the linchpin of its Indo-Pacific strategy is a clear message to expand the scope of the alliance beyond deterring North Korea to deal with emerging regional security challenges including the rise of China. Though Seoul is not comfortable with Washington's proposal for alliance transformation, it does not have the luxury to reject or ignore the American demand given the heightened level of the North Korean security challenge and the general security blanket that the US alliance provides..[xxv] In a context where the Trump administration has been putting enormous pressure for alliance transformation, Korea's recent move to engage with US’ Indo-Pacific strategy is a compromised position to navigate through the entanglement-abandonment dilemma.
Apart from Washington's pressure, the evolution of the US Indo-Pacific strategy and the expansion Indo-Pacific concept has also influenced Korean approach. Over the last two years, Washington's narrative of Indo-Pacific, which initially had a confrontational tone as articulated in the 2017 National Security Strategy has evolved to widen the scope and substance of the US cooperation with countries in the region.[xxvi] For instance, the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of the US Department of Defense released on June 1, 2019, emphasised the US commitment to the region through preparedness, partnerships, and the promotion of a networked region. It articulated four principles that the ROK shares, consisting of respect for the sovereignty and independence of all nations, peaceful resolution of disputes, free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and adherence to international rules and norms including freedom of navigations and over-flight.[xxvii] Similarly, a document published by the State Department, 'A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision' puts more emphasis on diplomatic and economic cooperation focusing on trade, infrastructure, energy, and the digital economy. The report stated, "the US vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. We do not ask countries to choose between one partner or another. Instead, we ask that they uphold the core principles of the regional order at a time when these principles are under renewed threat."[xxviii] The updated version of the US Indo-Pacific which incorporates an inclusive and multidimensional approach to regional order provides Korea more manoeuvring space to work with Washington's regional initiative without being worried about having to choose between the US and China.
The evolution of Indo-Pacific concept itself was another factor that influenced the Korean approach. With different countries advancing their own distinct versions of Indo-Pacific appears to have reduced Korean apprehensions regarding the concept.[xxix] With the expansion and diversification of the Indo-Pacific discourse, Korea not only began appreciating different visions associated with the concept and moving away from its initial interpretation of it as American grand strategy, it also made a distinction between the geographic and strategic conception of the idea.[xxx] In this regard, Korea welcomed the 'ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific' and began engaging with Indo-Pacific initiatives of countries including India and Australia.
As the fourth-largest economy in Asia, Korea is a significant stakeholder in the evolving regional architecture in Asia. However, its status as a divided country and its unenviable geopolitical location in Northeast Asia between competing great powers limits Korea's ability to influence but also comes in the way of taking a coherent position on regional issues. The growing rivalry between the US and China has the effect of further constraining Korea's strategic space and its deepening foreign policy dilemma. Korea's approach to the Indo-Pacific is a case that illustrates an emerging strategic dilemma in its foreign policy yet the Indo-Pacific is not the only instance where Korea is seen adopting an approach of strategic ambiguity. The Korean approach to the South China Sea and BRI also illustrate similar foreign policy behaviour.[xxxi]
Over the last two years, Korea's approach to Indo-Pacific has thus evolved from its initial position of rejection to that of a cautious engagement. Notwithstanding this evolution, Seoul continues to maintain ambiguity on the Indo-Pacific concept. This ambiguity can be seen as the absence of articulation of its position or an endorsement of the idea. In this context,the promotion of NSP as its vision of regional order is an attempt to maintain autonomy and promote its image as an independent regional actor. In doing so, Seoul attempts to find a middle ground between the US and China to take advantage of the regional opportunities while reducing the impact of great power geopolitical rivalry. However, Korea's ability to maintain an independent position is subject to the security situation in the Korean Peninsula and the intensity of the US-China rivalry. The intensification of great power rivalry in the wake of COVID 19 crisis, is posing a major challenge for Korean foreign policy in general and its regional approach in particular.
*Dr. Jojin V. John is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i]Chengxin Pan (2014) The ‘Indo-Pacific’ and geopolitical anxieties about China's rise in the Asian regional order, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 68:4, 453-469.
[ii] Paik, Wooyeal, Jaehyun Lee et al. 2020. The Quad Countries' Indo-Pacific Strategies and Ensuing Responses by South Korea, Seoul: Asan Institute of Policy Studies), https://bit.ly/2XoDRQI. Accessed on May 12, 2020; Kim, Jaechun "South Korea’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Dilemma", Diplomat, April 27, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/south-koreas-free-and-open-indo-pacific-dilemma/ Accessed on May 12, 2020
[iii] Op.cit. Paik, Wooyeal, Jaehyun Lee et al. 2020
[iv] "President Donald J. Trump’s Visit to the Republic of Korea", The White House, November 8, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trumps-visit-republic-korea/. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[v] Op.cit. Kim, Jaechun, "South Korea’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Dilemma”.
[vii] "South Korea’s “support of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”", Hankyoreh, November 28, 2019, english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_editorial/918905.html. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[viii] "ASEAN-Republic of Korea Joint Vision Statement for Peace, Prosperity and Partnership" November 26, 2019, https://asean.org/asean-republic-korea-joint-vision-statement-peace-prosperity-partnership/ Accessed on May 12, 2020
[ix] "The ASEAN-ROK Joint Vision Statement", November 4, 2019, https://asean.org/storage/2019/11/The-ASEAN-ROK-Joint-Vision-Statement-Final-formatted-4-November-201....pdf. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[x] "Opening Remarks by President Moon Jae-in at Joint Press Conference Following Korea-U.S. Summit", Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROK, June 30, 2019, www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5674/view.do?seq=319902&srchFr=&srchTo=&srchWord=&srchTp=&multi_itm_seq=0&itm_seq_1=0&itm_seq_2=0&company_cd=&company_nm=. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xi] “U.S. & ROK Issue a Joint Factsheet on their Regional Cooperation Efforts", US Embassy in Korea, November 2, 2019, https://kr.usembassy.gov/110219-joint-fact-sheet-by-the-united-states-and-the-republic-of-korea-on-cooperation-between-the-new-southern-policy-and-the-indo-pacific-strategy/
[xii] “The Republic of Korea and the United States Working Together to Promote Cooperation between the New Southern Policy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy”, US Embassy, Seoul, November 2, 2019, https://kr.usembassy.gov/110219-joint-fact-sheet-by-the-united-states-and-the-republic-of-korea-on-cooperation-between-the-new-southern-policy-and-the-indo-pacific-strategy/. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xiii] "Australia-Republic of Korea Foreign and Defence Ministers' 2+2 Meeting 2019 Joint Statement", Department of Defence, Australia, 12 December 2019, https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/minister/lreynolds/statements/australia-republic-korea-foreign-and-defence-ministers-22-meeting-2019. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xv] See, Jaechun Kim; In-Hyo Seol “Trump's Administration Indo-Pacific Strategy, KIDA Defense Issues & Analyses, http://www.kida.re.kr/cmm/viewBoardImageFile.do?idx=26600. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xvi] Op.cit. Paik, Wooyeal, Jaehyun Lee et al. 2020
[xvii] "S. Korea needs to consider its own national interests ahead of the US’", Hankyoreh, November 19, 2019, english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/917637.html; Lee Dae Woo, U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, Sejong Policy Briefing, July 26, 2018, http://www.sejong.org/boad/1/egofiledn.php?conf_seq=3&bd_seq=4410&file_seq=11288. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xviii] In-Hyo Seol “Trump's Administration Indo-Pacific Strategy, KIDA Defense Issues & Analyses, http://www.kida.re.kr/cmm/viewBoardImageFile.do?idx=26600. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xix] Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), is an American anti-ballistic missile defence system. Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD in 2016, ensued a controversy between Seoul and Beijing. See, Jojin John, “Towards a “New Normal”: Explaining Developments in South Korea- China Relations”, ICWA Issue Brief, May 2, 2018, /show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=4935&lid=1734. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xx] "Cooperation with the US, Japan important to deal with tension with Pyongyang: South Korea's Moon", Chanel News Asia, November 3, 2017, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/cooperation-with-the-us-japan-important-to-deal-with-tension-9373348. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xxi] Op.cit. Jojin John , “Towards a “New Normal”: Explaining Developments in South Korea- China Relations”
[xxii] John Power, "What does South Korea think of China’s belt and road? It’s complicated", South China Morning Post, https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3012713/what-does-south-korea-think-chinas-belt-and-road-its. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xxiv] Ellen Kim and Victor Cha, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place: South Korea’s Strategic Dilemmas with China and the United States," Asia Policy 21 (2016): 101-121.
[xxv] Anthony V Rinna, "Containing China through the South Korea–US alliance" East Asia Forum, 21 November 2019, https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/11/21/containing-china-through-the-south-korea-us-alliance; Clint Work, "Beyond North Korea: Fractures in the US-South Korea Alliance", The Diplomat, February 11, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/beyond-north-korea-fractures-in-the-us-south-korea-alliance/. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xxvi] “Indo Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region.” US Department of Defense, June 1, 2019, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6111634; “A Free and Open In do Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision”, US State Department, November 3 2019 https://www.state.gov/a free and open indo pacific advancing a shared vision/. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xxvii] Lee, Sook Jong, “ROK-US Cooperation in an Era of US-China Strategic Competition”, EAI Issue Briefing, November 26, 2019, http://www.eai.or.kr/main/english/publication_01_view.asp?intSeq=10351&board=eng_report&keyword_option=&keyword=&more=. Accessed on May 12, 2020
[xxviii] “ A Free And Open Indo-Pacific”, US State Department, November 4, 2019, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Free-and-Open-Indo-Pacific-4Nov2019.pdf
[xxix] Paik, Wooyeal, Jaehyun Lee et al. 2020. The Quad Countries' Indo-Pacific Strategies and Ensuing Responses by South Korea
[xxxi] Moon, C.-I and Boo, S. “Coping with China’s rise”, Asian Journal of Comparative Politics 2 no.1 (2017): 3–23.