South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy – A momentum towards developing into a ‘Global Pivotal State’

| Viswapramod C
  • South Korea’s new vision projects the values of freedom and solidarity in the international order.
  • South Korea identifies the Indo-Pacific as an economically robust region with the strategic industrial base being located in this region.
  • South Korea aims to seek multidimensional partnerships through the promotion of global multilateral order. It aims to project and develop itself into a ‘Global Pivotal State’.
  • As the contemporary world order heads towards greater uncertainties, the South Korean Indo-Pacific policy offers a firm strategic direction, not just to itself but to the larger international players.

The international order is experiencing a host of strategic changes in the recent past, with the foreign policy and national security paradigms of major countries undergoing a complete overhaul; a new shift of policy priorities towards the Indo pacific is emerging on a systematic scale, by the major powers of the world. The USA, EU (European Union), France, Canada and Japan have already come out with their Indo-Pacific strategy. But surprisingly even South Korea has come out with its comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy, which has raised the eyebrows of strategic and foreign policy pundits across the world. This strategy encompasses economy and security as its two key pivots, shifting the geopolitical gaze and gears from addressing issues on the Korean peninsula to the global and indo-pacific region. 

The new vision projects the values of freedom and solidarity in the international order, which has been stressed by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who happens to be the chief architect of this Indo-pacific strategy. This strategy states that South Korea aims to emerge as a ‘Global Pivotal State’, which means that “it actively seeks out the agenda for co-operation and shapes the discussions the Indo-Pacific region and in the wider world” The key elements of South Korea’s Indo Pacific policy are:-

  1. Three pillars of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy: Freedom, Peace and Prosperity (These are democratic freedoms including speech and expression, International peace through conflict resolution and economic prosperity through reaching the goals of growth and development) 
  2. They intend to develop a rules-based order based on a) Reciprocity b) Inclusivity c) Trust ( International response and co-ordination, fostering global inclusiveness in the partnerships, and developing international trust for fostering successful cooperation agendas)    
  3. South Korea would neither target nor exclude any specific country in its Indo-pacific strategy.
  4. Aims to build a regional order based on norms and values; the purpose here would be to develop a hub of cooperation networks in the Indo-pacific, through laying systemic value-based foundations to develop issue-based minilaterals which would provide momentum for greater regional cooperation and ensuring stable, rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.  
  5. It intends to strengthen its nuclear non-proliferation and counter-terrorism efforts across the region.
  6. The expansion of its comprehensive security cooperation in the region; Through the trilateral cooperation between the USA and Australia, the issues like robust supply chains, critical minerals, emerging technologies, climate change, cyber security and traditional defence cooperation would be addressed. Maritime security would be addressed through developing strategic co-operations with ASEAN, IOR and South Asian countries.  
  7. Actively engage in building the economic security networks through strong and robust supply chains; three strategic partnerships would be fostered a) Indo-Pacific Economic Framework ( IPEF), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership ( CPTPP) along with signing up of new trade agreements.
  8. Strengthening the cooperation in the critical domains related to Science and Technology along with narrowing the global digital gap; critical domains of science and technology would include semiconductors, next-gen biology and biotechnology, AI-led telecommunication and space sectors would play a critical role in closing up the digital gap. The USA, Australia, the EU (European Union) and Canada would be the potential partners.
  9. Indulging in developmental and contributive diplomacy by nurturing multilateral partnerships in diversified domains; aims to further the economic and social development of the Indo-Pacific region.

South Korea’s plunge into Indo-pacific; the quest for strategic freedoms

South Korea identifies the Indo-Pacific as an economically robust region with the strategic industrial base being located in this region. They clearly recognize this region becoming a constant threat to the freedom of navigation, in the international order. As they hold the principles of freedom, including the freedom of navigation not just as a security challenge, but also as a moral and ethical stand as they firmly believe in the international rules-based order, which is the foundational principle of their foreign policy doctrine. Along with this, South Korea is facing a host of international strategic problems which include, the hyphenated new cold war and a great power rivalry between China and the USA, Russia and Ukraine war reminding the Koreans of a possibility of long-drawn conventional warfare, lack of organized international alliances and action plans to build transparency and develop trust in the military and security domains, continued pursuance by North Korea, in its rapid developments and testing of nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, the systematic disruptions in the global supply chains due to Covid19 Pandemic and its fallout in the manufacturing sector worldwide who’s epicentre was China. In order to address these problems and in a quest to find strategic solutions towards these impediments, S. Koreans have come out with a comprehensive policy document, which they hope would fructify into a robust policy doctrine to entrust global peace and stability.

But in the finer details of the document, the underlined tonality indicates a strong essence of pacifism, which has been embedded deeply. The strategy outlines that “our inclusive Indo-Pacific strategy neither targets nor excludes any specific nation. We will work with every partner that is aligned with our vision and principles of cooperation. We will remain open to nations both in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond”. To add to this statement, Mr Lim Sang-Woo, the Director general of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that “In terms of values, freedom, democracy and rule of law is something that is deep in everyone’s mind; especially from the Korean point of view, that is our identity”. This indicates that S. Korea, despite being aware of the contemporary geopolitical challenges and security concerns in the Indo-pacific, has developed an idealistic conception of International relations. The idealist theory believes that the development of modern warfare led to wars that were far more destructive than anything that humanity had ever seen so far. In turn, this created new thinking where the concept of security was broadened to encompass vital components such as health, clean water and social investment with developmental goals to churn up economic prosperity. The long-drawn conventional war between Russia and Ukraine has had a significant impact on the strategic thinking of South Koreans, which has generated their liking for an idealist approach that focuses on pacifism. But having said that, the S. Koreans are conscious of the dangers that they would encounter, if they lack a well-structured defence mechanism. With the strategic alliance with the United States and developing strategic partnerships with the Indo-Pacific countries, especially through strengthening economic ties and diversifying the supply chains from a single source to multiple sources, South Korea believes that it could surge ahead in the pursuance of its strategic objectives.

The long-drawn conventional war between Russia and Ukraine has had a significant impact on the strategic thinking of South Koreans, which has generated their liking for an idealist approach that focuses on pacifism.

The Collective security approach has been adopted, wherein international security would be shared by multiple global actors much beyond the ambits of its sovereign territories for the establishment of global peace. This is a firm belief of the South Koreans. But with strategic economic alliances in the Indo-pacific region and beyond, a neo-realist perspective of dealing with an uncertain international system which comes with a baggage of security dilemma, is internalized quite effectively in this Indo-pacific policy. South Korea’s experience with its northern adversary (North Korea) and with the rise of the new global hegemon China, undermining even the United States, there is recognition of the cyclical nature of global power and its disequilibrium within the South Korean establishment.

Coming to the inclusiveness and trust aspects of the policy, South Korea aims to seek multidimensional partnerships through the promotion of global multilateral order. It aims to project and develop itself into a ‘Global Pivotal State’, along with steadily working towards deepening its bilateral engagements. It seeks to enhance the cooperation through taking up the ‘multilayered and comprehensive approach’ and taking up its partnerships through the promotion of the minilateral groupings, and other emerging regional organizations which are gaining prominence off late. This shows how the conventional multilateral forums and organizations which were set up in the post-World War 2 global order have significantly lost their relevance. South Korea will be expanding the scope of its cooperation beyond its traditional western allies to include the IOR ( Indian Ocean Region) republics, the ASEAN countries, Eastern and Central European regions, the Indian Ocean republics of the African coast along with Latin America in order to ‘develop a network of strategic partnerships tailored to each region’. With the ASEAN and the IOR countries, S. Korea would be focusing on the three key pillars of cooperation which are the digital sector, climate change and environment, and the healthcare sector. When it comes to conventional security cooperation, the focus would be on economic, maritime security and other emerging security issues, along with the continued principal focus on the South China Sea. In South Asia, a special focus would be given to India, as the document says, that ‘there would be a further strengthening of the special strategic partnership with India’. The strategy states that “India presents great potential for growth, having the world’s second-largest population and cutting edge IT and space technologies”. And taking this objective a step further, we can expect the up-gradation of the S. Korea – India’s Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CPEA) in the near future. Therefore, it is clear that India would emerge as a key strategic partner for South Korea in not just gearing up the economic ties, but also ensuring the development of strategic dimensions of security cooperation.

As climate change and the environment happen to be another key area of focus in this strategy, there would be a special focus on the Indian Ocean republics in Africa and the Pacific Island nations. Support for the initiatives like the 2050 strategy for the Blue Pacific continent, and the Pacific Island countries through the partners in the Blue Pacific (PBP), would be extended for the rejuvenation.

Pursuance of maritime security cooperation will be the key area of cooperation with the East African and the Indian Ocean littoral countries, as the issues of terrorism and international piracy still fester in the region causing severe maritime security threats. Through this Indo-Pacific strategy, there would be a broadening of the geographical sphere of cooperation to extend over to the entire Indo-Pacific region. This would be the primary agenda, with the implementation of the Indo-pacific strategy.

As the contemporary world order heads towards greater uncertainties, the South Korean Indo-Pacific policy offers a firm strategic direction, not just to itself but to the larger international players. This document clearly points out the crucial domains and strategic challenges which are posing monumental challenges to the countries of the Indo-Pacific. Perhaps the vital takeaway from this strategy would be its simulative statement that “Cooperation amongst the countries in and outside the region is more keenly needed now than ever before”, thereby indicating the importance of the much-needed attention towards the Indo-Pacific region, which is eclipsed by the growing challenge of the Chinese sphere of influence and hegemony.

(The author has an MA in International Relations. Views expressed are the author’s own)

References:

  1. Premasha Saha; Decoding the Republic of Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy: Observer Research Foundation. ( published: 6.1.2023)
  2. Jaganath Panda and Choong Yong; South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Quest for clarity and Global leadership. THE DIPLOMAT. ( published: 16.1.2023)
  3. South Korean Indo-Pacific strategy pitches for enhanced cooperation with India. Dinakar Peri. The Hindu. ( published: 12.29.2022)  
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