[Viewpoinrt] On Asean, look past economic interests

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[Viewpoinrt] On Asean, look past economic interests

The Korea-Asean special summit meeting, which will bring here leaders from 10 Southeast Asian countries, will be held on Jeju Island in June. The meeting, to be held in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of dialogue and partnership between Korea and Asean, is very significant in that it can serve as a starting point to realize a new diplomatic plan in Asia. It could also provide an important turning point for Korea to rid itself of current policies that focus exclusively on Southeast Asia and the four big powers and expand the horizon of practical diplomacy to the pan-Asian region.

Korea’s policy toward Asean thus far has been limited to a short-term perspective, prioritizing actual economic benefits. We have not been able to take a strategic position because we have concentrated too much on the Chinese and the U.S. markets.

Also, it cannot be denied that the focus has been on projects aimed at special events that promised highly tangible results. Nevertheless, Asean has risen to become one of the five biggest trading regions and three biggest investment regions for Korea. From an economic perspective, the results are not bad at all.

But Korea’s Asean policy should change. We must pay attention to the fact that a big shift is taking place in the structure of cooperation among Asian countries, as economic integration is promoted in the region. Following the precedent of the three northeast Asian countries, even India, Australia and New Zealand are now promoting free trade agreements with Asean countries.

A new structure of cooperation with a focus on Asean has been established now that China, Japan and India have each joined the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Southeast Asian Countries.

Now, Korea has to be aware of the importance of Asean as a strategic point for the realization of a new Asian diplomacy, instead of simply considering it a subject of trade and investment. Rather than promoting short-term and piecemeal cooperation projects, we need to build trust with each Southeast Asian country and establish comprehensive cooperative programs to maintain reciprocal relations in the region with a mid- to long-term perspective.

In particular, we must establish a strategy to allow us to strengthen our leadership as well as partnership with Asean countries by incorporating official development assistance with the trade and investment relations that we have firmly established up till now.

The most immediate things we can do in Asean countries are to help ease the gaps in development in the region and to provide assistance for economic integration to late-developing countries.

Providing concentrated support to less-developed Asean countries will let us kill two birds with one stone, since it will not only ease the region’s development gap, but would also promote economic integration in the region.

Therefore, Korea’s active participation in the efforts of Asean countries for economic development and the elimination of poverty is the most effective way for us to establish trust with them.

In addition, the Mekong River basin must be selected as a green development belt in our new Asian diplomacy plan, and it is necessary that Korea play the leading role in promoting environmental cooperation. If such an environmental cooperation project is effectively linked to the East Asia Climate Partnership project that Korea is planning to accomplish by 2012 with a budget of $200 million, we may see big results.

The new Asia diplomacy plan is a diplomatic strategy that places importance on Asia and presents a vision that expands the horizon of our Asian diplomacy from Northeast Asia to pan-Asia and the South Pacific region. In this process, the role of Asean, which has a multi-layered cooperation structure with Northeast Asia, Southwest Asia and the South Pacific, could have a great effect on our new Asian diplomacy.

This is why Korea has to consolidate trust with Asean countries and expand our economy-focused cooperation network toward omni-directional cooperation that includes even security and culture.

Following Asean and India, Korea is trying to sign free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand. As Korea now chairs the G-20, and cooperative relations with China and Japan have made progress, the conditions are already ripe for Korea to represent the position of Asia. I look forward to seeing the new Asia diplomacy plan expand and deepen cooperation with all Asian countries, including Asean, and hope for more concrete steps on the occasion of the Korea-Asean special summit meeting.

*The writer is the president of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

by Chae Wook

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