A s the US-China trade war intensifies and South Korea ’s spat with Japan shows no sign of abating, Seoul is doubling down on its diplomatic pivot to Southeast Asia. On September 1, President Moon Jae-in will begin a visit to Thailand , Myanmar and Laos as part of the New Southern Policy drive to reduce reliance on the United States, China, Japan and Russia. To signal its growing interest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean ), South Korea will seek an intelligence-sharing pact – called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) – with Thailand. The plan, approved by South Korea’s cabinet this month, comes after Seoul last week scrapped its GSOMIA with Tokyo in an escalating row triggered by historical differences over Japan ’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. The unprecedented move drew criticism from US officials for threatening to undermine a defence alliance triumvirate that has helped to contain North Korean, Russian and Chinese adventurism in northeast Asia. US officials said the decision exposed the 28,500 American troops in South Korea to greater danger from the North , fuelling talk that Washington would push for Seoul to pick up a bigger tab during next year’s cost-sharing negotiations for US troops. According to some reports, the US is looking to raise South Korea’s bill by five times, to some US$5 billion per year. Seoul terminates intelligence-sharing pact with Japan as ties hit new low Yang Uk, a defence analyst, said Seoul might take advantage of the agreement with Bangkok to sell weapons to Thailand, rather than fill the gaps left by scrapping the pact with Japan. “This is aimed at boosting South Korea’s chances of selling weapons in the region rather than jointly coping with threats from the North,” he said. South Korea exported US$2.8 billion worth of weapons last year, down from US$3.6 billion in 2017. Its weapons exports include aircraft, tanks, howitzers and warships. It has a GSOMIA with 20 other countries, including the US, Australia and France. Cheon Young-ghil, deputy secretary general of the Presidential Committee on the New Southern Policy, said South Korea would be a friendly partner to Asean and India, given that it had no military aims in the region. “As an economic partner with good intentions, we can share our experience in economic development,” Cheon said. In Thailand, South Korea had a partner in advancing its soft power, Cheon said, noting that the country “plays a key role in spreading K-pop culture in the region”. There were also good prospects for cooperation with Thailand in e-commerce and electric vehicles, he added. Moon has spoken of the importance of Asean in the Korean peninsula’s peace process. In a recent interview with the Bangkok Post , he said: “I hope that Asean will play a big role in helping North Korea abandon its nuclear programmes and stand together with all of us through economic cooperation.” Moon called Thailand a “true friend” of South Koreans, noting its help during the Korean war. “The Korean people will never forget the noble dedication and sacrifice of the Thai Korean War veterans and remain grateful to this day,” he said. ‘ALTERNATIVE’ TO BEIJING? Moon’s trip to Southeast Asia takes place during the 30th anniversary of ties between Asean and South Korea, with the president having visited Brunei, Malaysia and Cambodia earlier this year. The president’s visit also comes ahead of a special summit with Asean, and a separate meeting with five Asean states located around the Mekong River – Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Moon will host these meetings in Busan in November. Paul Chambers, from the Centre of Asean Community Studies in Thailand’s Naresuan University, said Seoul’s New Southern Policy offered Asean states an “alternative to great powers”, including China , the US and Japan . It could also help Mekong countries avoid risky Chinese loans, he added. “They can get an alternative from Beijing’s high-interest loans , which tend to lead to debt traps,” Chambers said. China ‘taking control’ of Mekong river through dam-building spree: Mike Pompeo Michael Montesano, from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Thailand Studies Programme, said Bangkok recognised that having good ties with Seoul could “reduce the risk inherent in Thailand’s economic and political relations with China”. But when it came to development projects in Cambodia , Laos , Myanmar and Vietnam , Beijing’s ability to invest was “unmatched”, said Benjamin Loh from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “China is the only partner that has the political will and resources to invest in the US$1 billion to US$2 billion-type of projects that can help these countries develop the energy and infrastructure sectors,” Loh said. “Hence it should be unsurprising that [they] are particularly supportive of Chinese economic and business overtures.” However, the four countries were also “hedging their bets” and would continue to deepen security and economic ties with other partners such as Japan, South Korea and the US, Loh added. RISING TRADE WITH ASEAN Moon’s administration looks set to meet its Asean trade target of US$200 billion by next year. Two-way trade with Asean reached a record US$160 billion last year, according to the Korea-Asean Centre in Seoul, up 7 per cent from 2017. Six Asean states, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore, are among its top 20 trade partners. Vietnam – the fourth-largest trade partner behind the US, China and Japan – accounted for over 40 per cent of South Korea’s trade with Asean last year. It also absorbed more than half of Seoul’s direct investment in the region in 2018. At a meeting in June, Vietnamese and South Korean officials agreed to boost trade to US$100 billion by next year. South Korea’s major projects in the region include Samsung Electronics’ giant smartphone factory in Vietnam, which hires some 100,000 workers, and Lotte Chemical Titan Holding’s plants in Malaysia. South Korea looks to Asean for help in its ‘trade war’ with Japan But even as trade ties deepen, South Korean-Asean trade figures are still dwarfed by those between Asean and China, which reportedly stood at US$588 billion last year, up 14 per cent from 2017. To complement the trade deal with the Asean bloc signed in 2015, Moon is seeking individual agreements with Asean states to further realise the potential from the region, which is home to 640 million people and has a combined GDP of about US$2.7 trillion. Government official Cheon said Asean and India were “very dynamic” and youthful economies that enjoyed high growth rates. “Given their young populations, economic structures that are complementary to ours and their great potential for economic cooperation with us, we have no other alternatives but to go hand in hand with Asean and India.” Connect with us on Twitter and Facebook .