Reinforcing relations with Asean
The author is a senior writer on international affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.
Pivoting to Southeast Asia has become a fashionable idea. The international role of the region located between China and the Pacific and Indian Oceans has significantly risen due to its maritime and geopolitical value.
The region was the stage for a series of global political summits this November. The 25th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meetings of 10 members plus three — South Korea, Japan and China — were held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Nov. 10-13.
A Group of Twenty (G20) summit was held on Nov. 15-16 in Bali, Indonesia. U.S. President Joe Biden, elected in 2020 and fresh from a midterm election triumph on Nov. 8, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was confirmed for his third term last month. The global stage moved to Southeast Asia. There, Xi had a tart conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, upbraiding him for leaking a private discussion to the media while the western leader coolly responded with a lecture on freedom of the press. The clash between the U.S. and China and democracy and autocracy spilled into the headlines.
The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in Bangkok, Thailand on Nov. 16-19 had an unusual guest — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who joined after a visit to Seoul on Nov. 17. He cancelled a trip to Tokyo but accepted the APEC invitation before leaving for Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
This week, the 9th Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus) is being held and includes the 10 countries of Asean and eight others, including Japan, the U.S. and China. It is the biggest multilateral security dialogue framework in the Asia-Pacific region. Defense chiefs from the U.S. and China meet through the Asean platform to discuss mitigation of conflicts and tensions. South Korea has a separate Asean defense meeting, last held on Nov. 10, 2021.
This series of major diplomatic events are meaningful in two ways. One is the rise of Southeast Asia’s role in global diplomacy as a geographic middle ground amid a heated U.S.-China contest in the post-Covid-19 age. Another is the expansion of Asean to defense and security from economics and tourism. Countries in the region are expanding cooperation with others due to a security threat posed by China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, construction of military bases and North Korea’s provocations. Southeast Asian countries are turning more assertive in the new global security order.
South Korea, whose strategy on Southeast Asia mostly centered on business, must elevate ties with the Asean in various areas, including defense and security. The centerpiece is broadening South Korea’s sea lines of communication (SLOC) beyond the country’s traditional diplomatic and defense boundaries around the Korean Peninsula.
The region is home to Indonesia, from which South Korea imports energy, and hosts SLOC — the maritime route for trade, logistics and energy sources from the Middle East. South Korea relies on the SLOC from the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the Strait of Hormuz connecting the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean to pass Southeast Asia to bring home energy.
South Korea must discuss with Vietnam the use of an international port at Cam Ranh Bay, which was the naval base for U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. For Korean naval forces and coast guard to effectively defend South Korean cargo carriers along the SLOC, they need to secure a reliable port of call for rest and supplies. Seoul also could discuss with Manila use of Subic Bay, which hosted a U.S. naval base.
Korea also needs to expand military exchanges with Singapore, which has been training some of its fighter aircraft in the U.S., France and Australia and training its ground troops in Brunei or Taiwan due to its small territory. Southeast Asia and South Korea have a wide range of areas for cooperation. South Korea is one of a few countries that can supply various types of weapons and defense resources.
Seoul must seek stronger defense ties with Southeast Asia. Instead of keeping silence on international issues, South Korea must perform its middle country role.
This calls for a proactive and long-term pivot toward Asean. President Yoon Suk-yeol must act on his declaration in Phnom Penh that South Korea regards Asean not simply as an economic partner, but a strategic partner for a very uncertain future.