Yoon’s Realignment With the US: Will ASEAN Be Relevant for ROK?

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The Republic of Korea’s (ROK’s) engagement with ASEAN peaked during Moon Jae-in’s administration. Under the New Southern Policy (NSP), a foreign policy programme under the Moon administration, ROK successfully broadened engagement with ASEAN and expanded its international engagement beyond its traditional four major partners (China, the US, Japan, and Russia). However, the new administration led by President Yoon Suk Yeol has revealed a change of course in the relationship. Despite the Korean government’s efforts to ensure continued engagement with ASEAN, it is doubtful whether Yoon’s Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI) prioritises ASEAN the same way as the NSP.

This doubt is founded on two main observations. First, Yoon has exhibited behaviour displaying a strong preference for the US. During his first foreign trip as President, Yoon joined the NATO multilateral meeting in June 2022 in Madrid, making him the first Korean President to do so. Furthermore, he affirmed his commitment by establishing a ROK mission to NATO in November 2022. The meeting coincided with NATO’s discussion on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and assistance to Ukraine. Presumably, the meeting was a pretext to discuss China’s rising military influence in the Indo-Pacific.

Most recently, Yoon visited the US for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the US-South Korea alliance. The summit has further highlighted the ‘ironclad’ alliance between the two countries. Under the Washington Declaration, the US will not only ensure the deployment of nuclear ballistic submarines but also the creation of a US-ROK Nuclear Consultative Group backing up ROK preparedness for nuclear threat scenarios. This extended deterrence affirms the US’s commitment to assist Seoul amidst the escalation of provocations from Pyongyang. Yoon also met with PM Kishida in Seoul to start a new chapter of ROK-Japan relations after more than a decade of dormant bilateral ties.

On the economic front, the Yoon government stated its intention to join the strategic US-led CHIP-4 alliance in the semiconductor industry. With the group consisting of US’s allies, ROK, Taiwan and Japan, the initiative is obviously aimed at countering China’s dominance. This behaviour contradicts ASEAN’s stance on open and inclusive international economic cooperation in which all major powers must play their part fairly to realise a prosperous and stable Indo-Pacific.

Second, Yoon’s Korea Indo-Pacific Strategy does not specifically put ASEAN at the core of peace-building. The strategy highlights the importance of the US by arguing that it is “the linchpin for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific”. The trilateral ROK-US-Japan relationship is considered pre-eminent in the establishment of rule-based regional order (core 1). Japan and the US are two allies indispensable in non-proliferation efforts (core 2) as well as in the expansion of comprehensive security cooperation (core 3). Seoul has also indicated its willingness to cooperate with NATO and the QUAD to address security concerns. This is clear evidence that Seoul is stepping away from a traditional reliance on ASEAN-led mechanisms.

Seoul, however, argues that ASEAN is a key partner for building peace and prosperity in the region, and Yoon has indicated his wishes to continue the partnership. However, the strategy seems only to spotlight trade and socio-economic cooperation, in which ASEAN and its sub-regional groupings, the ASEAN+3 and the East Asia Summit, are indispensable for creating economic security networks (core 4). It is unclear whether the strategy puts ASEAN in the ROK’s larger peace strategy. Instead, ASEAN’s importance is placed on non-traditional security provisions, mainly on climate change (core 7) and Overseas Development Assistance (core 8) issues. And despite KASI being launched as a regional policy tailored specifically to ASEAN, its utilisation is still under the framework of the Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Despite these obvious shifts, ROK should not leave ASEAN out. Seoul’s goals are highly aligned with those of ASEAN’s, therefore some calibration with the grouping may be possible. First, both emphasise principles, values and norms such as a rules-based order and respect for international law in their respective versions of the Indo-Pacific. The ROK is committed to “the principle of peaceful resolution through dialogue” in addressing dispute settlements. This is aligned withASEAN’s spirit of open, transparent, and inclusive consultation.

Second, to achieve the common objective of a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific, Seoul recognises the importance of ASEAN. It further stated that, “in working with ASEAN, the Republic of Korea firmly supports ASEAN Centrality”. Having the same spirit as the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) that seeks cooperation instead of rivalry, Korea’s Indo-Pacific adopts the strategy of cooperation based on the principles of inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity. But, it should be noted that ROK is also playing dual agency given its position to work with the US and its allies to counter China’s dominance in the semiconductor industry.

Third, ROK’s Indo-Pacific Strategy reveals that Seoul “neither targets nor excludes” specific nations. The principle of inclusiveness and openness are shared by the AOIP, making the regional organisation a natural ally in managing great power rivalry.

Lastly, the AOIP joins Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy vision of prosperity as both see that the stability of the region is the prerequisite for economic growth. Seoul is committed to enhancing connectivity and building technological ecosystems, which is aligned with ASEAN’s interests in diversifying technology sources to reduce dependency on a single provider (e.g. China). For Seoul, the relationship with Beijing is expected to remain rocky in the coming years; thus, it needs to diversify some of its trade and supply chains away from China, making ASEAN a more viable and stable economic partner for Seoul today.

Even with Seoul increasingly finding synergies and alignment with the AOIP, in reality, Seoul still has a predicament. In engaging the regional bloc, Seoul seems to feel more comfortable engaging bilaterally with certain countries, especially Vietnam. The bilateral contact was enacted under the Vietnam War pretext, but relations peaked after bilateral normalisation in 1992. To this day, Vietnam remains Korea’s top partner on all fronts compared to other ASEAN member states. Not only does Vietnam remain the preferred destination of Korean business, but it also retains high familiarity among the Korean public.

Unsurprisingly, Yoon chose to visit Vietnam as his first bilateral visit to ASEAN countries. The recent Vietnam visit not only strengthened economic and trade relations but aimed to strengthen defence cooperation as Seoul sees Vietnam as a potential security ally in the region. It remains to be seen how Yoon is going to engage with other ASEAN countries or the grouping as a whole in the coming years. Moon and the previous administration had set the bar high by visiting all ASEAN countries in the first two years in office. This is the standard that Yoon will have to work hard to restore the confidence that ROK will not leave ASEAN out.

Source: FULCRUM