ASEAN leverage to give Korea cushion against ‘America first’

By Kim Jae-kyoung

SINGAPORE ― South Korea needs to strengthen its diplomatic foothold in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to cope with challenges created by Donald Trump’s “America first” policy.

Following the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest free trade agreement in history, a growing number of countries are seeking to enhance bilateral partnerships with ASEAN member states.

Experts said that it is urgent for Korea to seek a diplomatic balance between four great powers ― the U.S., Japan, China and Russia ― and other countries as Beijing is expected to increase its clout in Asia in the midst of a growing rivalry with Washington.

“When there are major issues with countries that Korea is highly dependent on for security and economic issues, ASEAN becomes ever more important,” Kim Young-sun, secretary general of the ASEAN-Korea Center, told The Korea Times.

“ASEAN is an alternative partner and market for Korea, particularly amid the recent developments related to China and the U.S.,” he added. “Cooperation with ASEAN is particularly meaningful in terms of diversifying Korea’s partnerships.”

Calls for Korea to retool its diplomatic strategy are growing as many countries have sought to strengthen their presence in the 10-member economic bloc. ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

On Feb. 27, Singapore and China inked four pacts in Beijing to deepen cooperation in bilateral projects, including in intellectual property rights protection, furthering collaboration in the biomedical industry and the development of a transport and logistics hub.

The gathering stood out not because of the size and number of deals the two nations agreed to, but because of those who participated in the key meeting.

The two governments brought a new generation of ministers and politicians to meet their counterparts and continue the bilateral relationship into the future.

“We brought younger ministers along so they can continue the relationship that was built by our senior leaders, Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew, through the generations,” Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told reporters after the meeting.

The move to build the forward-looking relationship must be a wake-up call for Korea whose political presence in the region still remains weak.

“Korea has seen solid growth in its economic and cultural presence with ASEAN nations but the country is lacking in political links in the region,” Suh Chung-ha, chairman of the Jeju Peace Institute said. He is the former Korean ambassador to Singapore.

“The government should pursue more bilateral summits and enhance the exchange of high-ranking officials with ASEAN member states,” he added.

In early March, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Abdulazia Al Saud visited Indonesia to signed 11 agreements, including pacts on security and infrastructure development, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Indonesia was the second stop of his month-long tour of Asian countries, including Malaysia, Brunei, Japan and China. It was the first visit by a Saudi King to Indonesia in 47 years.

Given the latest developments between ASEAN and other nations, Korea’s diplomatic strategies are problematic in two aspects.

First, Korea’s diplomacy has placed too much emphasis on the four great powers. Second, its strategy aims mainly to resolve pending issues with no strategic and long-term approach. In other words, it lacks in policies intended to build forward-looking relationships.

Kim of the ASEAN-Korea Center, who was a former Korean ambassador to Indonesia, said that Korea has been too much occupied with its relations with the four major powers, and thereby is relatively less proactive in developing friendly relations with other countries.

“With the recent regional and global developments, our relations with the four major powers are important but we need to pay more attention to other countries including the ASEAN member states,” he said.

He pointed out that ASEAN and Korea do not have any hidden agenda against each other, and there are no major sources of dispute or tension.

“The two sides can cooperate not only on bilateral issues, but may also enhance each other’s profile on the international stage through collaborating on transnational and regional issues,” he said.

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