Two weeks after his inauguration, South Korean president Moon Jae-in (pic) unprecedentedly sent his special envoy to ASEAN. He also announced that his government would bring its relations with ASEAN up to the level of the four major powers (the United States, China, Japan and Russia). While such efforts are on the rise, we may still ask, what is exactly the South Korean government’s vision and strategy toward ASEAN?

Pursuing mutual and sustainable prosperity, increasing people-to-people exchanges, and partnering in building a new East Asia that is peaceful and safe, are the three main directions of the South Korean government in strengthening its ties with ASEAN, according to South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha during the ASEAN-ROK Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the occasion of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the 24th ASEAN Regional Forum, held in Manila in early August.

ASEAN is strategically an important partner, with a population of 640 million people and a GDP of US$2.6tril (RM11.095tril). With the launching of the ASEAN Community at the end of 2015, the prospects for this region are even brighter. Recognising this, it is no doubt that South Korea is gearing up to take the ASEAN-Korea relations to another level. Nevertheless, as pointed out at the International Conference on ASEAN-Korea Partnership held this week, where policymakers and prominent academics around the region gathered to discuss the past 50 years and the future of ASEAN-Korea relations, it is about time that Korea develops a more clear and concrete vision and strategy toward ASEAN.

In doing so, the following six elements must be considered to make South Korea’s vision and strategy more seamless and sustainable. The first element is ‘middle-power diplomacy.’ Much of the uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific region is in one way or another related to the rivalry among the major powers. In this environment, countries that do not have any hegemonic ambitions or hidden agendas like ASEAN and South Korea could forge a genuine partnership and play a stabilising role in the region. ASEAN-Korea partnership must be one that does not seek immediate profits, but one where the two sides would reinforce each other, pursuing mutual interests and addressing common transboundary issues.

The second element is “intertwined security”, in that peace and stability in south-east Asia and north-east Asia, including the Korean peninsula, is very much interconnected. For peace in east Asia, ASEAN and South Korea need to work together on both traditional and non-traditional security issues. Peace and stability is also a prerequisite for sustainable economic cooperation, which is linked to regional prosperity and the well-being of our people.

Third, for ASEAN-Korea relations to be long-lasting, it must be “mutually beneficial”. The economies of ASEAN and South Korea are complementary, and they are already partners that need and want each other. For example, while ASEAN is South Korea’s second largest trading partner and the second largest destination for investment, for ASEAN, South Korea is the fifth largest partner for trade and investment, and would be the best partner for technological cooperation amid ASEAN’s current efforts of transforming into a digital economy.

Fourth, ASEAN and South Korea have “shared values and similar culture”. Such commonalities allow the people of ASEAN and South Korea to easily engage in people-to-people exchange at a deeper level. We all know that mutual understanding and trust is at the foundation of closer economic and political-security ties.

Fifth, South Korea should more actively “share its development strategy and experience” with ASEAN. It is important to be a partner that can help each other and in this sense, South Korea should cooperate closely with the ASEAN member states with the capacity building of its human resources in particular, amid the gradual shift of ASEAN’s priorities to knowledge-based and high value-added industries. Sharing of such knowledge, experience and know-how will open up greater opportunities for economic cooperation between ASEAN and South Korea.

Last but not least, all of these endeavors should add up to building a peaceful and prosperous east Asia. ASEAN’s efforts to fully achieve a more integrated ASEAN is inseparable from building the East Asian Community (EAS), whereas South Korea also should make contributions to building the EAS and bringing peace and prosperity to the region through supporting ASEAN’s community-building efforts.

There is a saying, “it takes two hands to clap”. This means that for ASEAN-Korea relations to prosper, it cannot be done one-way — it must be two-way and reciprocal. For South Korea to map out a meaningful vision and strategy for ASEAN-Korea relations, it should first know ASEAN and fully understand its visions, principles and policy directions. In further strengthening our partnership, South Korea should not be pursuing its own agenda, but comprehend what it is that ASEAN needs and where it is headed.

“The Philippines is not pro-US, pro-China, or pro-Japan, but it is pro-Philippines and pro-ASEAN”, is what the secretary of foreign affairs of the Philippines, Alan Peter Cayetano, said while he was answering a flurry of questions on the South China Sea issue and the North Korean threat at a press conference of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and ARF. This statement leaves us to realise once again that it is important to be well aware of the policy directions of ASEAN as well as all 10 member states, and be ready to share, understand and work together to become true partners.

In November, President Moon will be attending the ASEAN Plus Summits in the Philippines as well as the APEC Summit in Vietnam, and it is anticipated that these occasions will further expand the horizon of ASEAN-Korea relations.

 


Kim Young-sun is the Secretary-General of the Asean-Korea Centre and former ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Indonesia.

This article is published in collaboration with The Star. It is also published here.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.