The Place of Southeast Asia and ASEAN in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Document

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The strategy document, which is expected to be published by South Korea at the end of 2022 and which is important in terms of showing the country’s strategy regarding the region, was published on December 28, 2022 with the name “Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”.[1] This document, published on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of South Korea, consists of a total of 4 chapters and 43 pages. The document is important in terms of reflecting Seoul’s strategy, security framework, alliance relations, cyclical perspective, objectives, determinations, foresights, geoeconomic and geopolitical view and general perception of foreign policy towards the region.

As a matter of fact, in the last part of the second part of the document titled “Vision, Principles of Cooperation and Regional Scope”, regional-based strategies are discussed. At this point, the assessment made on the Southeast Asian Region and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is worth examining both in terms of South Korea’s attitude and the general framework of the region, including an important economic organization of the region.

The relevant section of the document begins by emphasizing that ASEAN is both South Korea’s second largest trading partner with a share of $176.5 billion and the second largest investment destination with a share of $10 billion. After that, it was stated that 10 million South Korean citizens visit ASEAN countries annually and ASEAN is one of the biggest development cooperation partners of Seoul.

At this point, it can be said that ASEAN is an important economic actor for the region. As a matter of fact, South Korea’s detailed mention of ASEAN both in the title and in the introduction shows the importance that Seoul attaches to economic interests and interdependence within the scope of regional prosperity and peace. In addition to this, it can be stated that because of the fact that “interdependence” is a Western-based discourse, Seoul displays a Western approach within the scope of regional stability.

Later, it was said that South Korea considers ASEAN as a key actor in ensuring regional peace and establishing prosperity, and then it was stated that responsibilities will be shared by both actors at the regional level and comprehensive cooperation will be established strategically, including both trade and socio-economic factors. This can be read as South Korea may want to develop bilateral cooperation with other countries in ASEAN and direct these countries to Western-based cooperation within the scope of regional prosperity and peace. Therefore, Seoul seems to be in a desire to increase its allies against Beijing and Pyongyang. Because South Korea believes that other regional actors should also take responsibility in the context of security.

In this context, the places mentioned in the following section, where almost every country’s name is tried to be mentioned, also confirms the determination in the upper paragraph. Because, “Special Strategic Partnership” with Indonesia, “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” with Vietnam, “Strategic Partnership” agreements with Thailand and many other cooperation agreements with Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Timor-Leste are planned. It was also emphasized that mutual ties will be strengthened by signing bilateral agreements for a free, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region. Trying to include the names of each country in this document means that South Korea does not want to overlook any actor and attaches importance to all states in line with the goal of regional and global welfare.

Then, the strategy determined for ASEAN’s place in the Indo-Pacific Region is mentioned. ASEAN is expected to play a key role in promoting cooperation in the region in terms of openness, transparency and inclusiveness, according to the strategy called “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP)”. From this point of view, it is underlined that ASEAN will fight resolutely to ensure peace, freedom and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and South Asian Regions. At this point, it was mentioned that South Korea will support both the AOIP strategy and the centrality of ASEAN in line with the targets. This situation is indicative of Seoul’s pursuit of Western-based cooperation, since ASEAN was established within the framework of Western values against the communist expansion resulting from the Vietnam War.

In the following part, it was said that by harmonizing South Korea’s own strengths and ASEAN’s needs, a mutual and solid-based cooperation with the organization will be built. As a matter of fact, it was emphasized that the cooperation in question would focus on digitalization, climate change, environment and health.

At this point, at a time when the scope of security in the region is beginning to change, cooperation with ASEAN will not only be considered in the context of the traditional security framework of the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea; it was also stated that it would be implemented in the context of economic security, maritime security and other possible security concerns.

In the last part of the section on the region, it was stated that in addition to the mutual and well-founded cooperation between ASEAN and South Korea, bilateral relations with the states within ASEAN will be expanded. It has been said that these cooperations have continued for years, both politically and economically, and it has been emphasized that these relations will be carried to higher levels and taken to a new dimension on the basis of solidarity with cultural exchanges between people.

It is thought that this situation will contribute to the common goals of Seoul and ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, it can be said that South Korea emphasizes soft power and while expressing the conventional and nuclear threats it feels in the region, it draws attention that it will not pose such a threat. It can be argued that it is trying to convey the message that collaborations, alliances and dialogues, even if only on the basis of interests, will be tried to be established through soft power, public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy efforts. This indicates that Seoul aims to both inspire confidence and become a point of attraction.

As a result, the part of the document titled “Southeast Asia and ASEAN” put forward strategies for ASEAN rather than Southeast Asia. As a matter of fact, South Korea emphasized collective effort over ASEAN and gave the message that every actor should share responsibility in the sub-text of its regional strategy. This situation can also be read as the West wants to expand its alliance in the Indo-Pacific region. However, this document in question shows that Seoul supports multilateralism. As a matter of fact, in this part, it is possible to state that an approach based on the West and challenging the regional hegemony of China is exhibited.

[1] “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Korea,, (Date of Accession: 08.01.2023).

Zeki Talustan GÜLTEN
Zeki Talustan Gülten, 2021 yılında Yalova Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden “Amerikan Dış Politikası” başlıklı bitirme teziyle ve 2023 yılında da Anadolu Üniversitesi Açık Öğretim Fakültesi Dış Ticaret bölümünden mezun olmuştur. Halihazırda Marmara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda Tezli Yüksek Lisans öğrenimine devam eden Gülten, lisans eğitimi esnasında Erasmus+ programı çerçevesinde Lodz Üniversitesi Uluslararası ve Politik Çalışmalar Fakültesi’nde bir dönem boyunca öğrenci olarak bulunmuştur. ANKASAM’da Asya-Pasifik Araştırma Asistanı olarak çalışan Gülten’in başlıca ilgi alanları; Amerikan Dış Politikası, Asya-Pasifik ve Uluslararası Hukuk’tur. Gülten, iyi derecede İngilizce bilmektedir.