Asean helps Korea keep balance between giants

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Asean helps Korea keep balance between giants


Professor Choe Won-gi, head of the Center for ASEAN-India Studies at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA), speaks of 30 years of ties with Asean in an interview at his office at the KNDA in Seocho District, southern Seoul, on Nov. 4. [PARK SANG-MOON]

South Korea and Asean need to work together to build an “inclusive regional cooperation system” to maintain regional stability and peace amid an intensifying power struggle between the United States and China in the region, said Choe Won-gi, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA).

Choe, head of the KNDA’s Center for ASEAN-India Studies, sat for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on Nov. 4 at the KNDA in Seocho District, southern Seoul, and reflected on 30 years of diplomatic relations with Asean.

“Asean won’t choose sides between China and the United States,” said Choe, to maintain neutrality amid the rivalry and competition between the two great powers. “Asean’s position is very similar to our position. Building an inclusive regional architecture is very important, and that is what Asean is purporting. And there is a lot that Asean and South Korea can work on together.”

On Nov. 2, 1989, South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Ho-joong and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, chairman of the Asean standing committee, exchanged documents establishing sectoral dialogue relations in Jakarta, Indonesia.


The KNDA released the book, “30 Years of ASEAN-Korea Relations,” on Nov. 2. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Asean, established in 1967, is comprised of 10 members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The KNDA published a book to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral ties on Nov. 2 entitled, “30 Years of ASEAN-Korea Relations,” looking back on three decades of diplomatic relations with Asean.

Choe is one of the four co-editors of the book along with three senior diplomats with links to Southeast Asia: Ambassador Suh Jeong-in, executive director of the preparatory office for the Asean-Korea Commemorative Summit; Ambassador Kim Young-chae, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a former ambassador to Asean; and Park Jae-kyung, deputy director-general at the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s Asean Bureau.

The New Southern Policy was announced by the Moon Jae-in administration in 2017 as a vision of economic and diplomatic cooperation with Asean and India, which Choe describes as a “hedging and diversification effort” to avoid being too reliant on a single country or region.

Choe says South Korea is ready and willing to work with any regional initiative directed at the region such as the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy or China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), through cooperation with Asean.

“Through the New Southern Policy, we want to strengthen regional cooperation in East Asia which has been somewhat weakened nowadays,” said Choe. “This is a very important diplomatic initiative to overcome possible future risks that can arise from the great power rivalry between China and the United States.”

He added, “We have benign aspirations. The New Southern Policy is a policy, not a strategy with ambitions.”

Choe also described President Moon Jae-in already fulfilling his pledge to visit all 10 Asean countries during his five-year term as a “commitment” toward this policy.

The book’s release comes ahead of the Asean-Korea Commemorative Summit set for Nov. 25 and 26 and the 1st Mekong-Korea Summit on Nov. 27 in Busan.

The 543-page Korean-language book is divided into three sections and 33 chapters with contributions by 35 people ranging from diplomats sharing firsthand experiencing working on Asean relations to former officials and scholars in the field. An English version of the book is expected to be published next year.

The following are edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. How is Asean an important regional partner to South Korea amid the increasing power struggle between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region?

South Korea and Asean share the same concerns as well as interests in the regional environment of a competition between the United States and China. Smaller countries in the region are having to choose which side to take amid such a fierce hegemonic struggle. But in our case, as well as for Asean, it is difficult to explicitly take sides. What is important for us is not picking sides but building an inclusive regional cooperation system. Asean has been traditionally neutral and never takes the side of a particular powerful nation. That is what we call the “Asean Way.” Not long ago, Asean released its “Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” in a summit in June. A central message from the “Asean Outlook” is that Asean won’t choose sides between China and the United States and that Indo-Pacific cooperation should be based on Asean-led mechanisms and platforms which are inclusive of both the United States and China. Asean’s position is very similar to our position. As an ally of the United States, South Korea is willing to cooperate with the Indo-Pacific strategy in areas that we can, while with China, we are also ready to cooperate on issues including North Korea, as well as economically.

The United States is trying to build a regional architecture that excludes China, and I can’t say we have 100 percent shared interests in this aspect. Of course, freedom of navigation and overflight as well as rule of law are important, and there are fundamental values such as free market and democracy that we cannot compromise on. However, in terms of diplomatic and economic cooperation, we cannot exclude China, as the United States is asking of us. That is why inclusivity, more specifically inclusive regional cooperation, is very important. And that is what Asean is purporting, and in this respect, there is a lot that Asean and South Korea can share and work on together.

What does the New Southern Policy mean for South Korea’s diplomatic outlook?

We have so far focused on only the four major powers [the United States, China, Japan and Russia] as priority diplomatic partners. Of course big four diplomacy is important to resolving the Korean Peninsula issue. However, if you look at our diplomatic and external economic profile, the Korean Peninsula is still important, but we have many important interests that go way beyond the peninsula. In this sense, Asean stands first as our priority partner. In terms of foreign affairs, I regard the New Southern Policy as a diplomatic rebalancing strategy, and economically, it an economic diversification policy intent to diversify our external economic portfolios, and in a strategic sense, it is South Korea’s new regional cooperation strategy.

What is Asean to South Korea politically, economically and diplomatically? Asean was formed in 1967 with five countries. At that time there were severe conflicts among themselves, and tensions were high between the maritime countries and the continental countries, who were mostly communist. But they decided not to fight amongst themselves, and Asean got started. Along the way since its establishment in 1967, Asean has been not only successful in averting internal conflicts and maintaining peace among themselves, but also emerged as the most important regional organization for East Asian diplomacy, hosting every year the Asean Plus Three summit [with South Korea, Japan and China] and the East Asia Summit (EAS), which Russia and the United States joined in 2011. If you don’t partake in Asean, you cannot know what is going on around in the region. Asean also has become very important economically and has a promising future outlook. China’s economic growth is stagnant, but Asean continues to maintain a 6 to 7 percent growth rate and is playing the growth engine role in the world economy.

Can South Korea withstand pressure from the United States to partake in the Indo-Pacific strategy?

Our position is that with our New Southern Policy, we have the intention to cooperate with all the regional initiatives of key countries - the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and China’s Belt and Road Initiative - and through this contribute to regional connectivity and regional stability. South Korea’s principle of regional cooperation is four things: openness, transparency, inclusiveness and Asean centrality. The regional cooperation that South Korea envisions is open regionalism, not closed regionalism. China says that Asia’s security has to be in the hands of Asia because what China likes best is the United States not to be there. That is why after the1997 East Asian financial crisis, China actively supported Asean Plus Three because the United States was not included then. The United States was focused on the war on terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001, but in the meanwhile, China has been over the decade gradually securing its position in Southeast Asia, which is why [U.S. President Barack Obama] belatedly began a rebalancing strategy. The EAS and Asean Plus Three had been left in the hands of Japan, but the United States couldn’t leave everything to Japan. That is why the United States subscribed in 2011 to the EAS, and because the United States joined, Russia also joined. And fourth, we want inclusive Asean-led multilateral mechanisms, for example EAS, to be the platform for economic, political and security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific strategy has three pillars: economic cooperation, governance and security. Economy and governance we can willingly cooperate on. There are some difficulties in the security areas. For example, although the United States hasn’t made such a request, we might have a difficult time partaking in freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. Security-wise, didn’t we already make a choice? We have been the United States’ ally for the past 70 years. But it’s not like we need to make an immediate decision. Diplomacy is not all decided upon this, and we want to collaborate with Asean and countries with similar positions, in order to buffer and alleviate the confrontation between great powers and continue to provide a platform for the United States and China to participate in together and consult.

Asean in the past 50 years has been a great hit. China is pushing the BRI, and Japan is on board with the Indo-Pacific strategy. South Korea has the New Southern Policy. The difference is, we don’t have ambitions. South Korea can’t afford to have ambitions. We have no historical baggage; we want to work together with Asean for mutually beneficial outcomes and to contribute to building a prosperous and peaceful regional community. I think these are the aspirations embedded in New Southern Policy. And we are culturally very close too, as can be seen by Hallyu.

How did the book come about?

We officially began working on the book in March. Ambassador Kim Young-chae first proposed the idea last year when he was serving as Asean ambassador. We, [the editors], initially wanted a comprehensive book dealing with the economy and culture, but that was too wide, and we decided to focus solely on diplomatic relations. We began with the exchange of the document on Nov. 2, 1989, and covered the major milestones in the development of relations until today. Then we matched it with relevant experts, including practitioners currently working on the issues as well as retired officials and scholars in the field for a balanced view. The book has 33 chapters. The spectrum of views represented in this book is very wide. There are people who support what the government is doing now along with conservative viewpoints and varying evaluations. However, despite such differences, they were united in their feelings toward Asean.

What are the major milestones in Korea-Asean relations?

The book is divided into three sections to address this. Part 1 deals with the development of Korea-Asean relations. Asean is comprised of 10 countries and can be characterized as a regional inter-governmental organization. This book deals with not individual relations with each of the member countries but Asean as a whole. It covers how South Korea’s and Asean’s relations developed since establishing sectoral dialogue relations in 1989, such as the sealing of the Korea-Asean free trade agreement, the opening of the Mission of the Republic of Korea to Asean [in Jakarta], comparable to the South Korean missions to the United Nations in New York City and Geneva, the ASEAN-Korea Centre and the ASEAN Culture House [in Busan].

Part 2 deals with the development of regional cooperation, more specifically South Korea’s role in the East Asia regional cooperation process. In 1997, the Asian financial crisis hit countries like South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, and we realized that East Asian countries are in the same position and our economies are related to each other, so we need to cooperate amongst ourselves. So in 1997, on the 30th anniversary of Asean, the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan were invited to the Asean summit. President Kim Dae-jung attended, and that is when Asean regional cooperation began, leading to the Asean Plus Three summit and the East Asia Vision Group. Based on this, the East Asia Summit was launched. Regional financial cooperation has been especially successful, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative, a multilateral currency swap arrangement [launched in 2000 amongst the Asean countries and South Korea, China and Japan]. Part 3 looks at the next 30 years and the future development direction of Korea-Asean relations.

Asean maintains good bilateral relations with North Korea, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been invited to the Asean-Korea Commemorative Summit.

I think preparations are being made keeping that possibility open. There is a big role for Asean countries to play in the Korean Peninsula peace process. An important aspect of the New Southern Policy is engaging North Korea. We look forward to Asean playing a more proactive role and making more contributions on the North Korea issue. If the Korean Peninsula denuclearization issue is resolved and the North Korea economy begins developing, economic benefits do not stay in Northeast Asia but will extend to Asean. All 10 Asean countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea. The countries that North Korea feels most comfortable with are Southeast Asian countries. For example, the Kim Jong-nam incident [the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother in 2017] happened in Malaysia. When North Korea does good things and bad things, it does them there. Vietnam, Myanmar and Laos are in a position to share their reform and opening experience with North Korea. Asean can also play the largest role in mediating and helping North Korea engage with the international community.

What can we expect from the Asean-Korea Commemorative Summit later this month?

On Oct. 25, the KNDA and think tanks from all 10 Asean countries held a meeting to discuss the significance of the special commemorative summit and came out with a chair’s statement, which contained the priorities and deliverables the leaders at the summit should have and joint policy recommendations. I think what is most important for leaders at the upcoming summit is to set a new milestone for the directions of the future of Korea-Asean relations for the next 30 years.

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