Assessment of South Korea’s New Indo-Pacific Strategy

About two weeks ago, South Korea unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The strategy document received two opposite reactions. In the United States, the Yoon government’s strategy report was welcomed by U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan, who called it “a reflection of our shared commitment to the region’s security and growing prosperity.” By contrast, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson expressed discomfort—he noted that “China believes that countries should work together in solidarity for the region’s peace, stability, development and prosperity and against exclusive coteries. This serves the common interests of countries in the region.”

The Yoon government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy has come under close scrutiny in Washington and Beijing because it is a key indicator of how South Korea will align itself with the United States or China in the Indo-Pacific region after years of “strategic ambiguity” pursued under the previous Moon Jae-in government. The Yoon government indicated a clear departure from the past, as its Indo-Pacific Strategy clearly brings South Korea in sync with the United States by having its strategic vision firmly anchored in international norms and universal values and in line with its purported commitment to strengthen the rules-based international order. The Yoon government showed its intent to cooperate with other countries with shared interests and values, including the European Union and its member states like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. South Korea’s normative approach in its Indo-Pacific Strategy came as no surprise in light of Yoon’s value-oriented diplomacy and active promotion of freedom and democracy since the beginning of his tenure—both at home and abroad. During their first summit meeting held in May 2022, Yoon and Biden also showed their commitment to uphold their countries’ shared values and reinforce the rules-based international order. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yoon attended the NATO summit in June 2022 to broaden South Korea’s partnership with like-minded countries.  

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy leaves room for South Korea to cooperate with China. The strategy report calls China a “key partner for achieving prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific” and emphasizes that South Korea’s strategy is an “inclusive initiative that neither targets nor excludes any particular country” with inclusiveness as one of the three principles of cooperation in the region. Furthermore, it writes that South Korea “[supports] an Indo-Pacific where nations that represent diverse political systems can move forward together peacefully through competition and cooperation based on rules.” While all this nuanced language may be construed as a gesture not to antagonize China, the Yoon government is sending a clear message that South Korea will work with all countries as long as they abide by the existing rules, international norms, and universal values, and that the future cooperation between Seoul and Beijing in the Indo-Pacific entirely depends on China’s own actions. 

Beyond the strategic implications for the United States and China, South Korea’s release of its Indo-Pacific Strategy report is significant. The absence of South Korea’s comprehensive strategy in the Indo-Pacific has been a source of unease for many in Korea as well as for other countries that want to cooperate with Seoul. The previous Moon Jae-in government pursued a New Southern Policy and sought to synchronize this with the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, but South Korea’s restrained voice and lack of connections to the institutional frameworks being built among democracies in the region confined South Korea’s diplomatic space and diminished the country’s relevance and influence in the region. For the incoming Yoon government, a diplomatic platform for South Korea to reengage the Indo-Pacific therefore became necessary.

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy will present both opportunities and challenges for the Yoon government. On the one hand, this will open the door for South Korea to work with countries more actively in the Indo-Pacific on many functional issues, ranging from health to climate change, supply chain, digital economy, cybersecurity, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and other emerging regional and global issues. Already, South Korea has undertaken various efforts to reconnect the country to the network of regional institutions and expand the horizon of its regional diplomacy, as shown from its participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), commitment to trilateral economic security dialogues with Washington and Tokyo, interest in the Quad, participation in the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP), and the launching of the ROK-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative in 2022. This year, Seoul will host its first summit with 14 Pacific Island nations. Certainly, more can be done. As the cohost of the second Summit of Democracy along with four other countries in March 2023, South Korea can showcase its strong commitment to upholding the universal values and human rights by taking concrete actions to promote good governance and democracy. This could include a foundation for promotion of democracy projects alongside its ODA work in the Global South.

With the release of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, there are challenges for South Korea as the country will be expected to demonstrate its commitments to the rules-based order and address some of the contentious issues, such as disputes in the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait. Unlike previous South Korean governments, which have shied away from these issues to avoid a backlash from China, Yoon’s offers clear opposition to the unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, in lock step with Biden and Kishida at the recent trilateral summit meeting held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This now raises new expectations about South Korea in the region. But it is not clear whether South Korea will be able to stay firm and keep its word—especially in the face of Chinese possible economic pressure. When push comes to shove, failure to provide support to the United States and other countries in the region could be quite detrimental. This would be the biggest challenge for South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.  

Notwithstanding, Yoon government’s Indo-Pacific Strategy reflects an expanded horizon in South Korea’s foreign policy that goes beyond the Korean peninsula, embracing that the peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific is directly related to South Korea and active participation in regional affairs is vital for its own national interest. In that sense, the new strategy report is an important marker that will enable South Korea to reengage many countries in the most dynamic and contested region. This will also serve as a compass that guides South Korea’s geostrategic direction and approach toward the U.S.-China competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair