Deeper relations with South Korea brings diplomatic and economic opportunities

Photo: Gunawan Kartapranata/CC BY-SA 3.0

South Korea is building closer links with countries in Southeast Asia. They should welcome the opportunity to widen their diplomatic, economic, and military ties.

By John Pennington

South Korea has many historical links with Southeast Asia. However, the country trails China, the US, the EU, and Japan when it comes to investing in ASEAN. Things are changing. In November 2017, President Moon Jae-In launched his “New Southern Policy” (NSP). South Korea is offering ASEAN more investment, support and collaboration.

South Korea is strengthening its relations within ASEAN. Geopolitical factors have been a major factor for closer ASEAN-South Korean ties. In the face of escalating North Korean nuclear capabilities, Seoul enhanced military cooperation with its US allies. South Korea hosted the US-deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD). The Moon administration also took the side of its US allies and opposed Beijing’s “freeze for freeze” proposal, which would see the US and South Korea halt its joint military exercises.

China retaliated and reduced its economic support for Seoul. Without Beijing’s support, South Korea turned to Southeast Asia to plug the trade gaps. Now, the region is South Korea’s second-largest trading partner and investment destination.

Source: Statista

Chinese demand for South Korean products and expertise is in decline. US tariffs have also affected South Korean trade to the US. South Korea now exports less to the US. Meanwhile, sales of Korean products are rising in ASEAN. South Korea identified this as an opportunity for expansion.

Source: Hani

South Korea takes a different approach with each ASEAN nation

South Korea’s link-building exercise with Southeast Asia comes in many forms. For example, South Korea is increasing tourism investment in the region. More South Koreans are heading to Southeast Asia than ever before. Most visit the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. For Koreans, travel is one effective way of building links.

South Korea assists Brunei with Fintech development and gains access to Islamic finance. Brunei receives valuable expertise and experience as well as funding. For Singapore, the reverse is true. South Korea learns from Singapore’s technological advances and its smart city solutions.

Analysts view the South Korea-Vietnam relationship as an Asian success story. Trade between them is thriving. The two nations penned a long-term strategic partnership in 2009. It covers areas including defence, training and logistics. Under Moon Jae-In South Korean-Vietnamese ties have expanded to include a joint vision statement for defence cooperation.

South Korea and Indonesia have extensively cooperated in the area of defence. Indonesia imports South Korean defence equipment, and they develop planes together. Filipino Rodrigo Duterte was the first ASEAN leader to visit Moon. They discussed strengthening relations between the two countries. They focused on defence, infrastructure and personnel exchanges.

South Korea already carries out personnel exchanges with other ASEAN nations, including Cambodia. Cambodia received US$10 million under existing bilateral agreements. In Myanmar, South Korea signed an anti-corruption agreement. The two countries also discussed working together to preserve biological diversity. Last month, South Korea helped Myanmar launch an online legal database. Seoul’s expertise was instrumental in the success of the project.

These partnerships work for both South Korea and Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian countries receive South Korean money, expertise and technology. But the relationship is reciprocal. ASEAN offers South Korea significant incentives in return for its tourism investments.

Source: The Nation

The US will welcome South Korea taking a closer interest in the region. It sees Chinese hegemony in Asia as a growing threat. Therefore, South Korea taking a more significant role is good for the region. However, China will feel wary as the Philippines and Vietnam move closer to South Korea.

South Korea could allow ASEAN nations to lessen their reliance on China

South Korea can position itself as an attractive alternative to Chinese investment. Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia stand accused of trading their sovereignty for investment. China uses its chequebook to gain influence, requiring political influence in exchange for investment. When South Korea invests, it does not demand influence.

New Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir wants to pull back from China. He could, therefore, be very interested in what South Korea can offer. Other countries could follow his example now the NSP is in place.

China maintains significant influence over Southeast Asia. However, South Korea is strengthening its position. It offers ASEAN nations the opportunity to diversify their interests.

South Korea’s advances prevent Chinese hegemony and control of Southeast Asia. ASEAN nations should welcome Moon Jae-In’s NSP and the opportunities that come with it. China uses foreign policy to gain hard influence; South Korea’s approach is different. It sets out to benefit all parties. Long may it prosper.