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US President Joe Biden met South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during a trip to Asia in May. Photo: EPA-EFE

Will South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy ‘imitate’ US to counter China’s regional influence?

  • Experts say Seoul needs to come up with its own, unique plan as multi-nation race into Indo-Pacific region heats up, rather than simply fall in line with what America wants
  • ‘We need to always contemplate the bigger picture’, professor warns as he sees South Korean policy moving ‘further away from China’
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South Korea needs to devise a “strategy that fits into the gap” between the United States and China’s hegemonic race into the Indo-Pacific region, according to analysts.

Their recommendation comes after South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol revealed a plan in May to formulate the country’s own Indo-Pacific strategy framework.
Announced in a joint statement after US President Joe Biden’s visit to Seoul, the plan could herald a significant policy shift for South Korea. It also came after South Korea said it would participate in the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is aimed at countering China’s regional influence.

“It’s really essential that we put a lot of thought into how we are going to find our place in the context of the intensifying hegemonic race between the US and China and the reorganising of orders in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Kim Sang-bae, a professor of international politics at Seoul National University.

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The previous Moon Jae-in administration’s regional policies, referred to as the New Southern Policy, encompassed only Southeast Asian countries.

“In the past few months, it seems like we are getting closer to the US and getting further away from China,” Kim added, speaking on Thursday during an event held by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a government-funded economic research institute. “But we need to always contemplate the bigger picture of how we can structure things three-dimensionally.

“Only with those kinds of contemplations will we be able to come up with our own Indo-Pacific strategy, and not just an imitation of that of the US.”

The US strategy in the region has expanded to include the wider Indo-Pacific region since the former presidential administration of Donald Trump.

Another professor of international politics at Seoul National University, Jeon Jae-sung, said that Moon’s New Southern Policy “tried to minimise the implication of containing China in the security sector”.

But when it comes to other countries’ so-called Indo-Pacific strategies, especially America’s, the intention seems to be different, he said.

“[Chinese foreign minister] Wang Yi had said in March that the Indo-Pacific strategy frameworks are clearly meant to contain China,” Jeon added.

As other close allies of the US – including Japan, Australia and the European Union – long ago joined in and announced their own Indo-Pacific guidelines and strategies, a number of pundits saw the move by the newly inaugurated Yoon administration as a clear sign that South Korea was choosing to get closer to the US rather than China.

And analysts have emphasised that South Korea cannot simply “ostracise” China from its Indo-Pacific strategy as much as the US did.

[We] need to really think about whether we are going to mention China at all in our Indo-Pacific strategy framework
Jeon Jae-sung, Seoul National University

“China is a very important country for South Korea, not just economically but also in terms of security relating to North Korea,” Jeon said. “As cooperating with China is very important to us as well, it is important that our Indo-Pacific strategy is compatible with such.

“In fact, we also need to really think about whether we are going to mention China at all in our Indo-Pacific strategy framework. Whether it’s misunderstood or what we intended, it will be seen as the government’s policy toward China and the United States.”

The “resilience and potential of bilateral trade” between South Korea and China was emphasised by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce on Thursday.

Ministry spokeswoman Shu Jueting said trade between China and South Korea rose by 9.4 per cent in the year’s first half to US$184.3 billion, reflecting both the resilience and potential of bilateral trade.

With ‘chaos’ to continue, Korean firms fret over China supply-chain disruptions

Shu also said China and South Korea have started the second phase of negotiations aimed at upgrading their bilateral free-trade deal that took effect in 2015. And the fresh talks are said to focus primarily on services and investment.

Seoul, meanwhile, is expected to join a proposed US-led chip alliance known as the “Chip 4” initiative, which also includes Japan and Taiwan.

“China thinks any [such] arrangement should be inclusive and open, but not exclusive; should promote the stability of global industrial and supply chains, but not hurt and divide the global market,” Shu added.

“Under the current situation, it is in the interests of every side, and the whole world, to beef up the opening and cooperation of industrial and supply chains, and to prevent fragmentation.”

Additional reporting by Orange Wang