SUNDAY, April 21, 2024

Amid the backdrop of escalating geopolitical tensions among global powers, middle powers are stepping up efforts to solidify their positions on the world stage. The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the ASEAN are no exception.

On the 35th anniversary of their ties, Seoul has put forward a proposal to establish a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP)” with ASEAN. This underscores South Korea’s commitment to fostering strategic and sustainable engagements with its regional counterparts.

Central to Seoul’s strategy is the cultivation of partnerships with “like-minded” nations in the Indo-Pacific region. This approach aligns with South Korea’s broader foreign policy objectives as outlined in President Yoon Suk-yeol’s “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific” unveiled in December 2022. The aim is for South Korea to assert itself as a “Global Pivotal State” on the world stage.

Aligning with ‘like-minded’ nations

Throughout 2023, President Yoon paid state and working visits to 15 countries, primarily in the North Pacific and Europe. Notable among them were visits to the United States, Japan and France, highlighting Seoul’s commitment to strengthening alliances in the face of challenges posed by the Russia-Ukraine War, tensions on the Korean Peninsula and unfriendly moves in the Taiwan Strait.

Of particular significance was the Trilateral Summit held at Camp David in August, where leaders of South Korea, the US and Japan reaffirmed their commitment to institutionalising their relationship through new mechanisms. This included the establishment of annual trilateral meetings between respective foreign, defence, commerce and finance ministries.

In Europe, South Korea took steps to boost its engagement with NATO, culminating in the setting up of a diplomatic mission in November 2022. South Korea had sat in on a NATO Summit in June the same year, marking the president’s first foreign trip since he took office.

Economic interests also featured prominently in Yoon’s discussions, with talks of a potential free trade agreement (FTA) and collaboration on climate change initiatives when he met UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Climate change, clean energy and the development of future industries were also among the core issues Yoon discussed with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Yoon’s visit to the Netherlands also yielded tangible results, including agreements on semiconductor development and energy-saving technology. While in the Netherlands, Yoon visited ASML’s site in Veldhoven. He was accompanied by Samsung Electronics executive chairman Lee Jae-yong and SK chairman Chey Tae-won. He also oversaw two business deals including a joint venture between Samsung Electronics and ASML to build an R&D centre for next-gen chipmaking valued at 1 trillion won (26.87 trillion baht) as well as a joint venture between SK Hynix and ASML on energy-saving technology for hydrogen-using extreme ultraviolet vehicles (EUV).

Building ties with global South

In addition to strengthening ties with traditional allies, the Yoon government has also prioritised engagement with the global South, especially ASEAN. The adoption of the so-called Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI) reflects Seoul’s commitment to enhancing cooperation on both traditional and non-traditional security issues.

KASI outlines eight core lines of effort aimed at promoting ASEAN centrality and prosperity, including increased development assistance and strategic coordination. South Korea has also pledged financial support to various sub-regional mechanisms within ASEAN, further highlighting its commitment to the region’s economic development.

In May last year, Seoul kicked off its first Korea-Pacific Islands Summit, becoming the third country to host the summit after the US and India. Acknowledging the region as a “key partner” for his Indo-Pacific Strategy, Yoon pledged US$39.9 million by 2027 for development and to work with member countries to address the climate crisis, natural disasters, fishing, as well as food and health security.

Apart from ASEAN and the Pacific Islands, South Korea also sees massive economic potential in the Middle East. President Yoon visited the United Arab Emirates last year and reached various agreements, including the use of hydrogen in cities, water resources management, transport, sovereign investment partnership, financial cooperation between TAQA (Abu Dhabi National Energy Company) and Exim Bank of Korea, etc.

Yoon also visited Qatar and Saudi Arabia in October. According to Choi Sang-mok, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the “big three economies” and a “huge playing field” for South Korea.

Revitalising ASEAN relations

Looking ahead, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy holds significant implications for bilateral ties with ASEAN. As South Korea seeks to position itself as a “Global Pivotal State”, ASEAN must be prepared to engage with Seoul on a wide range of security and economic issues.

First, ASEAN should be ready to engage with South Korea on traditional and non-traditional security cooperation. The defence industry is welcomed by several ASEAN countries, with the Philippines and Indonesia becoming the top importers of South Korean arms in the region.

Second, the realignment of key players on the Korean Peninsula will help shape a novel strategic landscape. ASEAN will be inevitably affected by this stalemate as calls for the grouping to “take sides” will become louder and more frequent.

South Korea has been proactive in engaging with several players under the Indo-Pacific umbrella, though these interactions mostly focus on national interest. As part of its aspiration to become a “Global Pivotal State”, Seoul will need to “navigate the rise of the rest” by leading other middle powers and players to address global and regional issues, especially in terms of the climate crisis and digital gap.

Moreover, South Korea’s success in navigating the changing geopolitical landscape will depend on its ability to bridge divides between developed and developing countries.

As a country famous for its “soft powers”, South Korea should expand the scope of its public diplomacy in ASEAN and foster deeper people-to-people connections. For instance, Seoul should create “Friends of ROK”, which will turn the “fandom” of K-pop singers or actors and actresses into a network that backs future leaders, alumni, import-export, and professionals.

As South Korea assumes non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and commemorates the 35th anniversary of dialogue relations with ASEAN in 2024, the stage is set for a renewed focus on ASEAN-ROK cooperation in the face of evolving global and regional challenges.

Seksan Anantasirikiat is the advertising director of the Korean Association of Thai Studies (KATS) and a member of the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA). Views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of his affiliations.

Seksan Anantasirikiat is Advertising Director, Korean Association of Thai Studies (KATS)