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IFANS Focus The ROK’s Indo-Pacific Strategy under President Yoon: Key Elements and Strategic Implications CHOE Wongi Upload Date 2022-12-20 Hits 3353
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Ⅰ. Seoul’s New Indo-Pacific Initiative
Ⅱ. Key Features and Strategic Implications
Ⅲ. Challenges Ahead




Ⅰ. Seoul’s New Indo-Pacific Initiative

President Yoon Suk Yeol outlined the key elements of his administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy on 11 November 2022 at the 23rd ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. President Yoon pledged that his administration will “implement its Indo-Pacific strategy under the principles of inclusiveness, trust, and reciprocity based on the vision of free, peaceful, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
    First of all, President Yoon vowed to pursue a comprehensive regional strategy toward the Indo-Pacific, underscoring that promoting peace and stability in the region is critical to the ROK’s survival and prosperity. To that end, Yoon stressed that his administration will step up cooperation with key regional players in the Indo-Pacific including ASEAN countries. 
    Second, President Yoon articulated that the primary goal of the ROK’s new Indo-Pacific strategy is to foster a rules-based order firmly anchored in universal values. In this regard, Yoon reiterated that “any unilateral change in the status quo by force should never be tolerated,” vowing to shore up efforts at expanding the ROK’s roles in advancing peace and security in the region. 
    Third, President stressed that the ROK seeks to build an “open and fair” economic order in the Indo-Pacific by joining forces in strengthening the resilience of global supply chains and economic security in the region, and creating inclusive economic and technological ecosystems.
    Fourth, President Yoon expressed his willingness to take on greater international responsibilities, bolster the ROK’s contributions to development cooperation, and address the challenges of climate change, the digital divide, public health, etc. 
    Fifth, President Yoon also stressed that ASEAN countries are central to his Indo-Pacific initiative, and pledged to reorient Korean foreign policy to renew its commitment to ASEAN. More specifically, President Yoon reiterated the ROK’s unwavering support for ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), and his determination to deepen strategic ties with ASEAN. 
    It is expected that a full document, which includes details of Seoul’s new Indo-Pacific initiative that President Yoon briefly introduced and  a roadmap for implementation of the strategy, will be released and made public before the end of the year. 
 

Ⅱ. Key Features and Strategic Implications

As the ROK’s new Indo-Pacific strategy offers a glimpse into the contours of the Yoon administration’s foreign policy in the days ahead, this paper break down the strategic implications of the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy as follows.
 
1. A Comprehensive Regional Strategy toward the Indo-Pacific 

President Yoon seeks to adopt an Indo-Pacific framework in the ROK’s new regional approach and to pursue a comprehensive regional strategy toward a broader Indo-Pacific. This marks a significant  departure for the ROK’s foreign policy. Compared to Seoul’s previous initiative, the New Southern Policy (NSP) by his predecessor Moon, which squarely focused on ASEAN countries, Yoon intends to expand the geographical scope of the ROK’s regional engagement by joining hands with a broader spectrum of regional partners throughout the Indo-Pacific, including not only ASEAN countries but also other key players such as India  and Australia, etc. Furthermore, Yoon also aims to expand the functional scope of Seoul’s regional engagement toward playing a greater role in regional strategic and security issues, and to strengthen the ROK’s strategic presence in the region.  
    In the past, Seoul has abstained from adopting an Indo-Pacific framework in its regional approach because of the self-imposed inhibition embedded in Moon’s ‘balanced diplomacy’ approach. Seoul did not clearly articulate its strategic outlook and deliberately avoided strategic engagements in regional political and security affairs. Most of Seoul’s activities under the NSP were confined heavily to bilateral economic and functional cooperation on a bilateral basis. 
    Yoon’s new initiative is based on the recognition that Seoul can no longer  afford to keep shying away and disengaging  itself from addressing the challenges of the increasingly perilous geopolitical realities of the Indo-Pacific region. Seoul needs to deepen its engagement in the Indo-Pacific on all fronts because the ROK’s prosperity and strategic interests are critically and inevitably linked with the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region. While most of the major players in the region as well as European states have already adopted various kinds of Indo-Pacific strategies  on their own in order to enhance engagements toward this region, Seoul is a latecomer in this strategic race and has fallen short of what’s needed to take the lead in shaping the regional order in the Indo-Pacific. In this respect,  it is critical for Seoul to step up and shore up efforts to expand its economic, diplomatic as well as strategic engagement in the region, and work harder to broaden the horizon of ROK’s regional engagements toward the Indo-Pacific.
 

2. Articulation of Seoul’s Key Strategic Interest in the Rules-based Order

The most notable feature of the ROK’s new Indo-Pacific strategy is a strong commitment to foster a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific that is firmly anchored in universal values such as freedom, human rights and rule of law, etc.  
    First of all, Yoon articulated his regional order vision of a rules-based order as the central pillar in the ROK’s Indo-Pacific strategy to steer Seoul’s overall foreign policy in the coming future. That is, Yoon made clear that Seoul’s primary strategic interests lie in ensuring a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, and that the key objective of his initiative is to join forces with like-minded partners who share these strategic interests in bolstering a rules-based order in the region. Yoon’s articulation of Seoul’s key strategic interests in the rules-based order marks another significant departure from his predecessor Moon who maintained a stance of ‘strategic ambiguity’ between Washington and Beijing.
    Yoon’s priority on the rules-based order chiefly stems from Seoul’s strategic perception that the liberal international order, which has provided the foundation of Korea’s economic development and prosperity, is not any more taken for granted and faces grim quandaries with daunting challenges. The weakening of the strategic stability in the region associated with the rise of China, disruption of global supply chains in key industries, and erosion of multilateral  institutions and norms has all drastically reshaped the Indo-Pacific’s strategic landscape and undermined the existing rules-based order. Given that the ROK’s economic prosperity as well as strategic interests are inextricably linked to the region’s peace and stability, Seoul feels that such inhospitable developments are inimical to the ROK’s efforts to advance its own national interests, and Seoul needs to break out of its self-imposed strategic inhibition and take a proactive move to join forces in shaping the rules-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific. President Yoon took office when the ROK stands at a critical juncture in securing its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, and his new Indo-Pacific initiative is based on this critical recognition that the ROK’s foremost strategic interests  hinge on the existing rules-based order in the region. 
    Second, Yoon’s Indo-Pacific initiative is derived from a rather simple, but critically important, strategic thinking that Seoul needs to define its national interests and foreign policy outlook based on its own political and economic identity and place in the international society: That is, Korea is a flourishing market economy as well as a vibrant liberal democracy; the Korean people cherish the fundamental values in the rule of law, human rights, and freedom both at the individual level and as a nation; Korea has vital stakes in maintaining and bolstering the rules-based international order; therefore, it is imperative for Seoul to align its key foreign policies congruent with these fundamental interests and values that underlie its political and economic identity in the global society. 
    Yoon believes that Seoul’s key foreign policy approach in the past was misaligned, or disaligned for that matter, from the ROK’s own national interests. For example,  Seoul tended to define some of its key foreign policy decisions, not based on its own national interests, but in terms of perceived reactions from both Beijing and Washington as the previous administration’s ‘balanced diplomacy’ approach aimed at striking a strategic balance between the U.S. and China. In this sense, Yoon’s new Indo-Pacific initiative represents Seoul’s strategic recalibration that intends to make sure that Seoul’s foreign policy is aligned with, and reflects upon, its national interests, the values that undergird its political and economic identity, and the kind of international order that has been the basis of its prosperity and political freedom.
    Third, the strategy clearly outlines the Yoon administration’s commitment to bolstering cooperation and solidarity with like-minded states and partners that share strategic interests. The first step would be scaling up cooperation with the U.S. based on the two allies’ shared vision for a rules-based Indo-Pacific regional order. Korea’s new Indo-Pacific strategy also envisions creating new and solid alignments with like-minded partners such as the UK, France, Germany, etc. In particular, India, Australia, New Zealand, ASEAN, etc. are essential partners in the ROK’s  Indo-Pacific endeavors. With its new initiative, the Yoon administration is highly likely to drive deeper cooperation and ties with these key partners. 
    Fourth, the new strategy identifies expanding Korea’s role and responsibility in the international community as one of the Yoon administration’s key policy priorities. This reflects Seoul’s new sense of acknowledgment that the ROK must now assume a greater role and responsibility in regional and global affairs, commensurate with its status as one of a few advanced, democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific region. It is likely that President Yoon will set a course for Korea to assume a greater international role and responsibility, and to advance the country’s contributions to address the challenges facing the international community. 

3. Prioritizing and Forging Strategic Ties with ASEAN

President Yoon stressed that “ASEAN is Seoul’s key partner in its Indo-Pacific strategy” and unveiled his new ASEAN policy called the “Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI),” which outlines Korea’s ambitious plans to strengthen ties with the bloc. President Yoon also proposed upgrading Korea-ASEAN relations to a “comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP)” in the near future.  Yoon’s remarks offer greater clarity as to how the new strategy would shape the trajectory of Korea’s relations with ASEAN member states as well as how Korea will approach ASEAN in the years ahead. 
    First of all, the new strategy indicates that Korea’s ASEAN policy has now become a subset of the country’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy, suggesting that the Yoon administration will continue to place a priority on, and remain committed to, ASEAN centrality in the coming years. And the “KASI” will likely serve as a key platform to materialize Seoul’s continued commitment to fostering ties with ASEAN. Viewed in this light, the Yoon administration’s ASEAN policy shows a degree of continuity with the former Moon administration’s NSP which aimed to diversify economic and diplomatic partnerships with ASEAN member states.
    However, the “KASI” as one of the core elements of Seoul’s new Indo-Pacific strategy  highlights  Yoon’s intention to go beyond the NSP and forge strategic ties with the bloc. As attested by Seoul’s pledge to double its annual contribution to the ASEAN-Korea Cooperation Fund and upgrade Korea-ASEAN relations to a “CSP,” Yoon aspires to pursue a much more robust and stronger ASEAN policy than his predecessor’s NSP. While the Moon  government largely viewed ASEAN as an economic and trade partner and focused mostly on economic and functional cooperation with the bloc, the Yoon administration envisions a comprehensive, strategic partnership that includes a new focus 0n addressing strategic and security affairs in the region. Yoon’s commitment to building stronger security and strategic partnerships with ASEAN represents a departure from the previous administration’s narrower focus on fostering economic ties. 
    Third, this notable shift in Seoul’s perception of ASEAN as the ROK’s key strategic partner will likely prompt the Yoon administration to drive its future ASEAN policy toward advancing greater security cooperation and strategic partnerships. For example, the “KASI” proposes holding regular strategic dialogues between senior officials from both sides to discuss issues of regional peace and security; regularizing the ROK-ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting that was held virtually last year as a one-time event; expanding Seoul’s support for ASEAN’s capacity-building in the maritime security areas, and bolstering security and defense cooperation between Korea and ASEAN member states. This illustrates Korea’s strong commitment to significantly expanding the scope of strategic cooperation with ASEAN on regional security issues, as part of a broader effort to implement Korea’s newly announced Indo-Pacific strategy.    


Ⅲ. Challenges Ahead

By announcing its own Indo-Pacific strategy, the Yoon administration has provided clearer contours of Seoul’s first-ever comprehensive regional strategy. Up until now, the lack of an Indo-Pacific framework in its regional approach has kept Seoul from assuming a constructive role in addressing regional affairs in the Indo-Pacific. If Yoon’s new strategy is going to be implemented as Seoul aspires, the initiative is expected to contribute to strengthening Seoul’s strategic presence in regional affairs and its regional role in shaping the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
    That said, Yoon is likely to face a set of daunting challenges in implementing his new Indo-Pacific strategy. Yoon’s plans for the Indo-Pacific will have to deal with the following challenges before they bear fruit and turn Seoul into an active strategic player in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. 
    First and foremost, managing ‘China risk’ would probably be the biggest challenge Yoon will face in the coming years. Though the Yoon administration presents ‘inclusiveness’ as the first  guiding principle of its new Indo-Pacific strategy to make it clear that the strategy targets or excludes no nation, China is highly likely to perceive Seoul’s new initiative as a strategic tilt towards Washington. In that case, China would be tempted to make efforts to discourage Seoul’s Indo-Pacific endeavors and to pull Seoul away from Washington towards itself, which may lead to an aggravation of Seoul’s bilateral relations with Beijing going forward. Also, it remains to be seen how Seoul will manage its relations with China when, for example, it takes a clearer diplomatic position on regional security issues in the South China Sea and makes concerted efforts to establish coordinated actions with the U.S. on major regional security issues. Taken together, managing Seoul’s relations with Beijing in a stable manner is likely to be the biggest challenge the Yoon government will face in promoting its new regional strategy.  
    Second, Seoul needs to deal with various challenges stemming from its absence from the Indo-Pacific coordination with like-minded countries in the earlier period. In particular, a lack of effective institutional frameworks for Seoul to implement its Indo-Pacific plans in coordination with like-minded partners poses a challenge.  As the former Moon government in Seoul has distanced itself from participating in the Indo-Pacific cooperation with other partners, Seoul needs to work together with other regional actors including the U.S. to build institutional frameworks for Indo-Pacific cooperation that includes Korea as a key participant. 
    Also, it is vital for Seoul to strengthen policy coordination with Washington to make some of its priorities align with Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Moreover, it would be a challenging task for Seoul to manage the Biden administration’s growing expectations for greater burden-sharing in dealing with various economic as well as regional security affairs in the Indo-Pacific.
    Third, while the ROK’s new Indo-Pacific strategy spells out Seoul’s commitment to assuming greater regional roles, one of the biggest challenges ahead would be clarifying Korea’s position and policies on politically sensitive issues in the region, including Taiwan strait contingencies and related challenges, disputes in the South China Sea, and  human rights issues in China and elsewhere in the region. In particular, it remains to be seen how far Seoul can go along with its emphasis on universal values, such as human rights, freedom, and rule of law, etc., in its diplomatic management with Southeast Asian countries who tend to perceive this kind of value-laden diplomacy as something of the West’s ideological imposition on them. 
    Lastly, as the Yoon government perceives security cooperation and strategic collaborations with ASEAN as one of the key enablers in achieving Seoul’s new vision for the Indo-Pacific, it remains to be seen how Seoul carves out its constructive role in addressing regional security challenges including the ones in the South China Sea, supporting ASEAN countries’ capacity-building in maritime domain awareness, and assisting ASEAN’s maritime law enforcement agencies to increase their capacity and capability to counter an array of challenges emerging in the maritime domain.

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