South Korea holds the key to the Indo-Pacific

South Korea holds the key to the Indo-Pacific
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The U.S. is putting all its diplomatic muscle behind a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). Australia and Japan are fully behind Washington. India lends its support, at least in theory. These countries — the Quad — cannot successfully make FOIP the epicenter of how Asian geopolitics are defined, though. They need to convince other countries in the region of its merits. The success of the FOIP initiative needs, above all, the clear and unambiguous backing of South Korea.

It seems obvious that South Korea eventually will join, or at least formally endorse, FOIP. After all, South Korea is free and open — with the most successful democracy in Asia, a robust free-market economy, and strong rule of law. South Korea has a decades-old alliance with the U.S., and South Korean public opinion retains favorable views of the U.S.

Why, then, is Seoul reluctant to join FOIP? Despite U.S. lobbying, including by President Trump, the Moon government has neither supported nor rejected FOIP. The South Korean government even appears reluctant to use the term “Indo-Pacific.” At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo used every possible term to refer to the Asia-Pacific region except the one Washignton now favors. 

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President Moon Jae-in and his government claim that Seoul’s New Southern Policy complements FOIP. But this policy refers to ASEAN and India, and doesn’t extend to the Pacific at large — never mind the Indian Ocean.

Geography is a key reason behind Seoul’s reluctance to embrace FOIP. Traditionally, South Korea has not considered itself a maritime power. Neither the Pacific Ocean nor, logically, the Indian Ocean are core elements of Seoul’s foreign policy calculus. Historically, (South) Korea has been more affected by developments in the Asian landmass than have Japan and Australia, both island countries.

Indeed, Seoul is only a two-hour flight from Beijing. Also, China borders North Korea —  Seoul’s main foreign policy interest. It is thus understandable that South Korea is unwilling to openly challenge China. Openly antagonizing China has economic consequences and, at a time of economic uncertainty in South Korea, it does not make sense to raise tensions with China.

Another reason the Moon administration is reluctant to embrace FOIP is the initiative’s not-so-subtle dig at Beijing. The Indo-Pacific component of FOIP is not necessarily problematic, but the free and open part of the equation is another matter. It directly challenges Beijing’s supposedly statist and interventionist Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a sense, FOIP serves the Quad to balance BRI — China’s grand geo-economic strategy to become the leading power in Eurasian affairs. South Korea sees no reason to choose between China and the U.S. as long as it can benefit from both.

The Trump administration’s behavior is another reason its efforts to convince South Korea to join FOIP have fallen flat. South Korea is one of several countries targeted by President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE’s tariffs. Trump also has openly accused Seoul of not paying its fair share of the costs of hosting 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, driving a hard bargain in renegotiating the cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement signed in February. 

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Above all, Washington has been distinctly unsupportive of the Moon administration’s pro-engagement inter-Korean policy. The Trump administration has made clear that sanction waivers for inter-Korean economic cooperation projects are a non-starter. Washington has insisted on “coordination” between the its and South Korea’s policies involving North Korea — code for Seoul to move at Washington’s speed. If the U.S. is unwilling to support South Korea’s most fundamental foreign policy, Seoul has less incentive to back FOIP.

Why would the Quad need South Korea on board to make FOIP the main driver of Asian geopolitics? At the moment, FOIP looks like an American attempt to balance China in the region. Japan provides a predictable supporting role, given its historical alliance with the U.S. and enmity towards China. Australia is far from the center of gravity of Asian geopolitics in and around China. India is keen to show that it has its own independent Asia policy.

South Korea would bring legitimacy and credibility as a fairly independent foreign policy actor. Despite its alliance with the U.S., South Korea will not simply provide support for any U.S. policy out of habit. Its support for FOIP, therefore, would add much-needed gravitas to the initiative. Also, a middle or pivotal power such as South Korea can be an asset to superpowers seeking to garner the support of third countries behind their initiatives — a degree of multilateralism. This explains why Beijing sought the support of Seoul for BRI or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. 

The failure to internationalize the concept of FOIP where it matters — in East Asia — further reinforces the need to get South Korea on board. In its recent Indo-Pacific strategy, ASEAN dispenses with the free and open component. With South Korea coming out behind FOIP, countries across East Asia would have a fairly independent foreign policy actor to follow.

South Korea also would bring FOIP a geographical connection to the East Asian region that it lacks. The U.S. is on the other side of the Pacific. Japan and Australia are not in the Asian landmass. And India is not part of East Asia. It makes sense for these countries to emphasize the importance of the waters of the Indo-Pacific. Having a country inside the East Asian mainland supporting FOIP would send the message that the Indo-Pacific does include this part of Asia. 

Ultimately, whether FOIP replaces the Asia-Pacific or East Asia as the main way Asian geopolitics are conceptualized will not be decided in Washington or Beijing. Superpowers need followers that will help make or break their foreign policy strategies. This is why South Korea is the key country to bring real legitimacy to FOIP.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo is KF-VUB Korea Chair at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and associate professor in International Relations at King’s College, London. Follow him on Twitter @rpachecopardo.