ASEAN – the Republic of Korea Cooperation: the Factors of Success and Vulnerability
July 2021 was eventful in relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Republic of Korea (ROK). In the early June, the 8th ASEAN-ROK Joint Cooperation Committee took place, while in the late June, the parties specified the terms on which the ASEAN-Korea Center would participate in the exhibition of global startups “NextRise 2021” (a major international event attended by representatives of the companies Samsung, Google, Goldman Sachs Asia, BCG Korea, Microsoft Korea and the like), and the ROK’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong visited the ASEAN Secretariat. In view of such an intensive agenda of ASEAN-ROK cooperation, to reflect on its trends and future prospects is a relevant exercise.
To date, the key achievement of this cooperation has been the ability and the real rather than the declaratory readiness of ASEAN and South Korea to coordinate prospective planning in synergy with the regional developments. For the first time, it became evident between the bipolar and the post-bipolar periods, when the ROK became ASEAN Sectoral Partner (an intensification of contacts in trade, investment and tourism) and ASEAN Full Dialogue Partner in 1989 and 1991 respectively. For ASEAN and South Korea these events were not just paper exercises. Arguably, the mutual interest was natural since they had to deal with identical, or at least similar, tasks during the Cold War. They included a confrontation with the socialist states, maneuvering between the great powers, and a participation in the Japan-centric supply-production network to the best advantage of their internal modernization. It is noteworthy that South Korea and Singapore, apart from Hong Kong and Taiwan, were the new industrial economies of the first wave (NIE-1) while Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines were the new industrial economies of the second wave (NIE-2). Collectively, all the ASEAN founding states participated in the Japanese “flying geese model”.
After the Cold War, ASEAN-ROK relations experienced new upward trends. Remarkably, contrary to cooperation between ASEAN and its other external partners, the ASEAN-ROK dialogue was free from fundamental contradictions, not to mention serious problems. In these circumstances, navigating the minefields that emerged in the new era, the association and South Korea expanded their cooperation and diversified its instruments. In the early-mid 1990s, Seoul supported the association in its effort to establish the pan-regional multilateral dialogue venues on political and security challenges. In its turn, the association made North Korea’s nuclear issue one of the central topics of the first ARF session in 1994. In the late 1990s, when the association grasped with the impact of the Asian financial and economic crisis, South Korea took on the helm in developing the East Asian regionalism with ASEAN as its “driving force”. It was the ROK’s President Kim Dae-jung who endorsed the idea to intensify the dialogue between the ASEAN+3 member states, including the establishment of the East Asian Free Trade Area. The impact is felt at present, as the ARF is the only multilateral venue in which North Korea’s representatives participate, while the multilateral initiative RCEP retained the key component of the ROK’s proposal, specifically, the status of ASEAN as the coordinator of the pan-regional economic format.
In the 2000s and up to the late 2010s, ASEAN-ROK dialogue progressed without dramatic breakthroughs, but smoothly and steadily. In 2004, South Korea joined the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. In 2004-2005, the parties signed the Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Cooperation Partnership and adopted the ASEAN-ROK Plan of Action (POA) to implement the Declaration. In December 2005, the association and South Korea signed the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, which was followed by agreements on trade in goods, services and mutual investment in 2006, 2007 and 2009 respectively. On January 1, 2010, the ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Agreement (AKFTA) became operational.
Revealingly, the escalation of Asia-Pacific security challenges, exemplified by the South China Sea and the Mekong River issues, as well as sharp disagreements between the ASEAN+3 member states over the optimum formats of economic cooperation and the controversy over the future members of the East Asia Summit during its preparation, did not influence upon relations between ASEAN and South Korea. On the contrary, the parties were able to expand the foundations of the dialogue. In 2009, the ROK’s President Lee Myung-bak endorsed the New Asia Initiative aimed to intensify Seoul’s policy towards small and middle states of the region and emphasized the directions beyond the economic cooperation. With respect to Southeast Asia, this vision was substantiated by steps aimed at stimulating the intra-ASEAN integration, as well as at the intensification of people-to-people contacts. The latter included the elimination of barriers for labor migrants from Southeast Asia to enter the Republic of Korea.
In 2017, Seoul endorsed the New Southern Policy which ASEAN documents describe as 3P (People, Prosperity and Peace). This policy is in synergy with the pillars of the ASEAN Community (economic, political-security and sociocultural). The follow up of the New Southern Policy – the New Southern Policy Plus (it includes responding to the impact of COVID-19 pandemic, promoting ties in education and culture, maintaining sustainable economic development, implementing infrastructure projects, improving innovative technologies and finally, “Shaping a Community of Greater Safety and Peace” with the focus on combatting non-traditional security threats) – responds to ASEAN’s prospective planning. Encouragingly, the ASEAN-ROK dialogue is supported by their dynamic mutual trade turnover, as in 2012-2020 it increased from 131.4 to 154.1 billion dollars respectively (although it fell from 160.7 billion dollars achieved in 2018).
While the ability of ASEAN and the ROK to prevent the impact of the Asia-Pacific politicized international milieu on their cooperation has been the most important prerequisite for success in their dialogue, the key factor of vulnerability stems from the on-going regional processes.
Among them, the most threatening is the project Indo-Pacific region, as well as the Quadrilateral Defense Cooperation (Quad) as its institutional foundation. Examples of the ROK’s readiness to join the Quad in the framework of the Quad Plus are in place already. Experts cannot exclude this scenario owing to both the ROK’s hopes for the Quad’s potential influence upon North Korea’s nuclear issue and a possible revision of the Quad’s agenda. At the same time, the ROK is free from illusions that this scenario carries damaging implications for relations between South Korea and China, as well as for the Asia-Pacific security. The Quad brings nothing good for ASEAN either. In case apprehensions of turning the Quad into the Asian NATO materialize, which seems likely, ASEAN will lose its hard-won strategic assets, mainly, the privilege to draw the agenda and to coordinate the Asia-Pacific cooperative security system within the framework of the ARF, the ADMM+8 and the EAS. Arguably, as the Indo-Pacific Region and the Quad further develop, the rank of the ASEAN-led multilateral venues in the priorities of their participants will decrease dramatically. The Indo-Pacific Region and the Quad will exert strong negative influence not only on ASEAN and the ROK, but eventually on their relations.
Fundamentally, the major prerequisite for future success in the ASEAN-ROK dialogue accounts for preserving the firm foundation that the parties have laid during more than three decades. At the same time, the collapse of the “inclusive Asia-Pacific Region” built by joint efforts of China, the US and other regional actors, as the project Indo-Pacific Region gains traction, is key vulnerability factor. The extent to which the association and South Korea will be able to strengthen the former and dissociate themselves from the latter will encourage progress in their cooperation in the years to come.
Канаев Евгений Александрович
доктор исторических наук