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Is South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Enough To Gain Leverage In The Region?
Abhishek Kuamr Singh
2023-01-23
Region : North East Asia, Korean Peninsula,
Issue : Military Issues, Security, Politics,
Since the Korean War (1950-53) ended, South Korea primarily relied on the United States (US), whereas its foreign policy largely remained focused on North Korea and its nuclear threat. However, despite being the world’s tenth-largest economy in the world, South Korea has received criticism for being a watcher of global politics and not being an active player.
There was a need for a stronger diplomatic framework, especially for the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, South Korea launched its first comprehensive regional strategy, the Indo-Pacific strategy. The strategy is being touted as an attempt at making the country a sincere middle power by reinforcing its security alliance with the US, diversifying security partnerships, and advocating a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific. However, is this watershed strategy enough for South Korea to gain leverage in the region?
Yoon doctrine: Indo-Pacific strategy
The Indo-Pacific strategy has been closely linked with the US and its strategic partners like Japan, Australia, and India, also known as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD. South Korea, however, has always been reluctant in framing an active Indo-Pacific strategy. This changed under the Yoon-Seok Yul administration as South Korea unveiled its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region.”
According to the President’s office, it is South Korea’s first comprehensive regional strategy and encapsulates the country’s commitment to broadening its diplomatic space and increasing its role and contributions to the region in line with its enhanced status and expectations from the international community. Seoul will pursue nine core lines of effort to fulfill its vision for a free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region under the three cooperation principles of inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity.
Currently, Seoul struggles to balance between alliance and autonomy and has never fully navigated its foreign policy without the US presence. Whereas, Beijing is the largest trading partner of Seoul along with a major stakeholder in North Korean denuclearisation. Amid intensifying US-China rivalry in the region, this strategic document portrays the same balancing act between its security and economic partner, the US, and China.
Moreover, Seoul has refrained from using Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) which the other powers use but has incorporated “elements” of the concept. Simultaneously, this strategy barely mentions China in the document, highlighting Seoul’s accommodating principle. Meanwhile, Yoon also vouched that a unilateral change of the status quo in the region by force will not be tolerated. However, the accommodating pattern is limiting South Korea as a passive participant in the Indo-Pacific and not helping South Korea to be taken as a serious partner; this remains its biggest criticism. Therefore, it needs to take significant steps to gain leverage in the region.
How can South Korea gain leverage in the Indo-Pacific?
South Korea is a key nation in the Indo-Pacific, but to be seen as a serious player in the region, Seoul must overcome perceptions of its strategic ambivalence. This strategy is shaped by the larger strategic environment and the dynamic relationships that exist between a network of different regional actors. However, given the networked nature of Indo-Pacific relations, South Korea’s actions alone will not be enough. Seoul has to partner and work with like-minded nations to foster its strategy to an advanced level. For example, advocacy of the strategy by Tokyo might prompt other nations to accept Seoul as a relevant Indo-Pacific partner because of Japan’s prominence and stature in the region. However, Japan’s consistent disparaging of South Korea can affect ROK’s efforts in the region.
Furthermore, it is an opportunity for South Korea to clarify its direction and position in the region where it has great interest and its standing among other states. Therefore, it will be important for Seoul to build network ties in the region through bilateral and multilateral measures, but to be taken as a serious partner in the Indo-Pacific, Seoul must take significant steps. These are as follows:
• Diverse partnerships:
Partnership with other Indo-Pacific countries, including the members of the QUAD to propagate freedom of navigation, rule of law, and open Sea lines of communication (SLOC) will prove to be useful. Furthermore, refinement and alignment with other existing initiatives and arrangements, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and ASEAN will bolster Seoul’s global presence. Moreover, to limit or contain Chinese pressure and coercion, Seoul needs to work closely with Chinese adversaries like India, Vietnam, etc. This will eventually help Seoul in diversifying its security, diplomatic, and economic relations with China. Additionally, Seoul should advance its security relationships with other traditional Indo-Pacific countries by strengthening trilateral ROK-US-Japan cooperation. It should also diversify its supply chain to reduce its dependence on China.
• Using its resources:
As a fully established, economically, technologically advanced democratic country, Seoul has a comparative advantage and expertise over others in Asia. Seoul can use its areas of expertise and can actively participate in regional economic activities, like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the CHIP-4, to seek economic benefits and play an advanced regional role. Moreover, Seoul can advance its core strengths of digital trade, emerging technologies, green growth, and climate change in the region. Also, being the tenth largest economy in the world, South Korea can increase its trade Official Development Assistance (ODA), and aid within this region like Japan to mark its presence.
Seeking and extending political support
First, propounding its self-defence against the North Korean threat is extremely necessary for Seoul to project strength in front of the world, even if it has to receive criticism from China. This should include frequent military drills with the US and Japan, deploying relevant weapons, strategic assets or the recent remark of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Moreover, Seoul has to seek political assistance from like-minded nations in the Indo-Pacific for promoting peace on the Korean peninsula along with extending support for the ongoing crisis in the region. Seoul also has to mobilise and extend support for human rights and democracy at home and abroad. Seoul has to raise concerns about human rights violations in North Korea and Uighur Muslims suffering in China if it has to gain the confidence of the Chinese adversaries.
The Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy will also shape the future course of South Korea’s emerging grand strategy of becoming an important global force. Meanwhile, the strategy not only reaffirms the joint commitment of the US, Japan, and ROK for a free and open Indo-Pacific but also details South Korea’s aspirations for world affairs as an active middle power. Nonetheless, the more US-China relation will strain, South Korea’s policies will face a dilemma and might be forced to make difficult decisions.
This strategy is a good step forward by Seoul, but it needs constant revisions as the US-China rivalry or other geopolitical incidents unfold in the future. To mitigate the rivalry and threats spinning out, Seoul needs to work together with like-minded countries, as a peaceful and nuclear-free Korean peninsula would not be feasible without the right Indo-Pacific strategy.
This article originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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