South Korea and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

In 2017, the Trump administration unveiled its free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. As the U.S. government fleshed out details of the FOIP strategy over the next two years, U.S. allies and partners including Japan, Australia, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) also clarified, enhanced, and synchronized their own approach to FOIP with the U.S.. Meanwhile, South Korea, a close U.S. ally, has been slow to embrace the Indo-Pacific concept in contrast to other regional allies. What explains Seoul’s reticence in adopting the Indo-Pacific framework, and can the Moon Jae-in government make greater room for FOIP as U.S.-China competition intensifies? In addressing these questions, this briefing highlights South Korea’s New Southern Policy (NSP) and the potential for U.S.-South Korea cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Unveiling the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

The concept of FOIP pre-dates the Trump administration’s FOIP strategy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first articulated Japan’s version of FOIP in August 2016 during a speech at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Likewise, Australia outlined its Indo-Pacific concept in a 2016 Defense White Paper and a 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Canberra has since featured FOIP prominently in policy speeches. India’s Act East policy has also morphed into an Indo-Pacific strategy. Not to be left behind, ASEAN put forth its “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” in June 2019, offering greater clarity on its position towards FOIP.

Although differences exist, several points of convergence emerge on the varying Indo-Pacific approaches. Some mention of rules-based order, economic prosperity, and greater connectivity across (sub)-regions appear in each respective national (or organizational in the case of ASEAN) statement on Indo-Pacific policy. Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S. have also revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue since 2017, emphasizing a commitment to “shared democratic values and principles” in a configuration Prime Minister Abe once described as “Asia’s democratic security diamond.”

For these reasons, it remains puzzling that a staunch democratic U.S. ally such as South Korea not only remains outside of the Quad, but appears reluctant to adopt the Indo-Pacific language that now permeates across the foreign policy discourse of other U.S. allies and partners in the region.

A Japanese Concept?

Some analysts have suggested that tensions between South Korea and Japan have kept Seoul from fully embracing the FOIP framework. Indeed, earlier formulations of the Quad and FOIP were associated with Japan. Although the Quad finds its origins in the response to the disastrous 2004 tsunami off the Indonesian coast, Shinzo Abe offered an “ideological component” to the Quad configuration by suggesting an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” in 2006. An early reference to the FOIP concept also appeared in remarks by Abe in 2007 about the “dynamic coupling” of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans as “seas of freedom and of prosperity.”

While it may be reasonable to believe bilateral tensions and national pride played some role in South Korea’s reluctance to adopt the FOIP concept, it is not the main driver behind South Korea’s initial ambivalence to the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Trump administration’s endorsement of FOIP in 2017, as well as Australia’s significant contribution to the FOIP narrative, reflect the multilateral nature of the FOIP framework. The concept is not owned by any single country, including Japan. Moreover, other circumstantial factors including domestic turmoil in late 2016 leading to former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, and rising tensions with North Korea and the Moon’s government’s preoccupation with inter-Korea relations, have also contributed to Seoul’s seemingly lukewarm response to FOIP.

The China Challenge and Foreign Policy Autonomy

Beyond circumstantial or domestic political reasons, the dominant factor driving Seoul’s policy stance on FOIP lies with China and the Moon government’s desire for policy autonomy. Beijing perceives FOIP and the Quad as a balancing strategy orchestrated by the U.S. and its allies. At its core, FOIP is aimed at containing China’s rising power and regional influence. In the same vein, the Moon administration understands FOIP as a strategy driven by geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China. Adopting FOIP would therefore complicate relations with Beijing, South Korea’s largest trading partner and a major stakeholder in establishing a Korean peace regime.

Other regional actors face the same China challenge and have partially addressed this dilemma by resorting to varying degrees of hedging between the U.S. and China. For South Korea, however, the dilemma runs deeper. For centuries, Korea struggled to maintain autonomy among a sea of great powers. In the 19th century, Korea wallowed under the political machinations of Japan, Russia, and China. In the 20th century, Korea was literally divided by the Soviet Union and United States, only to then fall victim to war. Now in the 21st century, South Korea sees itself increasingly entrapped in a brewing Cold War between the United States and China. At the heart of this dilemma is South Korea’s quest for greater foreign policy autonomy.

Despite pressure to lean towards one great power or the other, the narrative of having to choose between the United States and China is a false dichotomy. The Moon government continues to hold tight to the U.S. alliance. However, it has not internalized the FOIP framework to the extent of other U.S. allies. Instead, South Korea is navigating across the U.S.-China standoff by offering quiet, diplomatic support for FOIP.


Introducing South Korea’s New Southern Policy

South Korea seeks to carve out its own foreign policy strategy apart from FOIP. Yet, the Moon government recognizes the constraints great powers and an intensifying China- U.S. rivalry places on its foreign policy. For instance, despite progressive voices egging the Moon government to pursue inter-Korea engagement on its own, the Blue House to date has worked closely with Washington to coordinate its North Korea policy and preserve the sanctions regime. Regarding China, Seoul has treaded lightly with FOIP to avoid overly antagonizing Beijing. South Korea learned a hard lesson when China punished the country in 2017, banning South Korean products and tourism, after the newly elected Moon permitted the U.S. to deploy its THAAD missile defense system on Korean soil.

An unintended consequence of China’s bullying was that it encouraged South Korea to seek out and diversify its economic and strategic options. To this end, in late 2017, the Moon government launched its New Southern Policy (NSP) to boost ties with ASEAN’s ten member countries and India. President Moon visited all ten ASEAN countries, the first South Korean president to do so, during his first two years in office. President Moon also hosted all ASEAN heads of state in Busan in 2019 for the ASEAN-Republic of Korea commemorative summit celebrating thirty years of ASEAN-ROK relations in 2019. Moon and India’s President Narendra Modi have also discussed ways to connect the NSP with India’s Act East Policy and have committed to boosting the two countries trade, investment, and people-to-people relations. By strengthening regional partnerships beyond the Northeast Asia corridor, South Korea may mitigate potential vulnerabilities from Chinese economic coercion and U.S.-China trade friction.

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and New Southern Policy

Similar to Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the NSP expands South Korea’s foreign policy priorities westward. Despite having eschewed the FOIP language in its own regional strategy, the potential for overlap between the NSP and FOIP is not lost on Washington and Seoul. At the 3rd ROK- U.S. Senior Economic Dialogue in December 2018, the two sides “discussed ways to work more closely together in implementing the New Southern Policy .and the Indo-Pacific strategy.” The U.S. State Department also published its first major public report on FOIP in November 2019 acknowledging South Korea’s NSP.

In the same month, the U.S. and South Korea released a joint factsheet titled, “Working Together to Promote Cooperation between the New Southern Policy and the Indo-Pacific Strategy” as an intentional step towards coordinating policies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.  The fact sheet integrated the NSP’s three pillars – people, prosperity, and peace – with some of the key elements of the US FOIP strategy. For instance, under NSP’s prosperity pillar, the U.S. and South Korea identified areas where the two countries could promote prosperity through initiatives geared towards energy, infrastructure and development, and the digital economy -  the same three issues the U.S. has touted as central to FOIP’s economic strategy.

Likewise, the people pillar of the NSP is fused with FOIP’s message of good governance and support for civil society. To this end USAID and the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding on September 30, 2019 to strengthen development cooperation in sectors such as women’s empowerment, youth, health, and education.

Absent in much of this discussion, however, are points of convergence on the strategic front, particularly on traditional security issues. Other experts also note that the NSP’s peace pillar remains the least developed of the three. The Asan Institute’s Jaehyon Lee argues that “security –political cooperation is lagging far behind economic and socio-cultural cooperation between ASEAN and Korea.” The emphasis on people and prosperity over the peace dimension does not entirely rest with Seoul. ASEAN has also tended to eschew traditional security issues in favor of non-traditional security as it remains sensitive to being drawn into the security affairs of external powers. Given the underdevelopment of the NSP’s peace pillar, then, it should come as no surprise that the strategic links between the NSP and FOIP remain limited to non-traditional security issues such as transnational crime, pandemics, natural disasters, and water resource management.

Also missing in discussions of NSP and FOIP convergence is the role of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Although the role of bilateral alliances plays prominently in the U.S. FOIP strategy, defense issues are largely outside the scope of the NSP. For South Korea to center its response to FOIP around the U.S.-South Korea alliance would raise sensitive domestic political issues regarding the role of the alliance and United States Forces Korea (USFK) beyond the Peninsula. Although alliances stakeholders in Seoul and Washington have adopted strategic flexibility and expanded the role of the alliance to address regional issues, progressive policymakers have traditionally preferred limiting the role of the alliance and USFK to the defense of the Korean Peninsula.

Leaning into the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

It remains to be seen whether South Korea will expand its discourse on FOIP, if not institutionalize the FOIP concept into its own foreign policy agenda. For now, South Korea’s support for FOIP is channeled through its implementation of NSP in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Seoul has tip-toed around multilateral discussions centered around FOIP and instead has pursued a conflict-avoidance strategy with China by limiting its participation on FOIP-framed joint initiatives to mostly economic and social-cultural forms of cooperation.

Unfortunately, Chinese assertiveness in the region has not abated, making it politically harder for South Korea to distance itself from the strategic aspects of FOIP without becoming strategically isolated. More concerning, a recent Brookings report warns that Beijing will likely “continue to exploit perceived gaps” in the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

Despite Seoul’s reluctance to cross Beijing, a December 2019 Pew Research Center public opinion poll indicated that 63% of South Koreans held negative views of China. The only other country polled in the region that registered more pessimistic attitudes about China was Japan. Over time, Seoul may therefore gradually align its regional strategy more closely to FOIP and the vision of a “networked security architecture” to deter aggression, maintain stability, and ensure access to maritime space. For instance, South Korea recently joined in on a conference call of the “Quad Plus” to address COVID-19 economic issues. South Korea may seek foreign policy autonomy, but not at the expense of its own national interest.

For the time being, the Moon and Trump governments can continue to build synergies between the NSP and FOIP, perhaps using the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) as a benchmark for addressing cooperative security issues. The Moon government has given its blessing on AOIP, in part because the AOIP also skirts around strategic confrontation with China. Nevertheless, maritime cooperation is one key area of concern for ASEAN in the AOIP. South Korea is unlikely to participate in freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) anytime soon with the U.S., but the Moon government may appreciate ASEAN’s emphasis of the maritime domain and its relevance to the Indo-Pacific’s “evolving regional architecture.” 


The presidential committee on the NSP aims to unroll “NSP 2.0” sometime this year. The Moon government is expected to streamline the NSP into more specific joint actions for delivery with Southeast Asian partners and India. It remains to be seen whether NSP 2.0 will provide an additional boost to the “peace pillar.”  Drawing greater attention to security cooperation under the peace pillar would make it easier for the U.S. and South Korea to expand their cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and help better align the NSP with the FOIP concept. Beyond implementing development initiatives outlined in the 2019 USAID-MOFA memorandum of understanding, the bigger picture Seoul might consider is how it can leverage the U.S.-ROK alliance and its middle power status to contribute to the region’s security architecture and the Indo-Pacific framework through the NSP.

Andrew Yeo is Professor of Politics and Director of Asian Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington DC. He is currently a visiting research fellow at the University of Philippines-Diliman and part of the Mansfield-Luce Asia Scholar’s Network. He is the author or co-editor of four books including Asia’s Regional Architecture: Alliances and Institutions in the Pacific Century (Stanford University Press, 2019); North Korean Human Rights: Activists and Networks (Cambridge University Press 2018); and Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests (Cambridge University Press 2011). Research for this report was made possible with a generous grant from the Korea Foundation and support from the Mike and Maureen Mansfield Foundation. The author wishes to acknowledge Kuyoun Chung, Chiew Ping Hoo, Kei Koga, Jaehyon Lee, and Jae Jeok Park for helpful insights, and the CSIS Korea Chair team for their editorial assistance. All errors belong to the author.

Professor of Politics, The Catholic University of America