Toward a win-win strategy with Asean

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Toward a win-win strategy with Asean

Lee Hyuk
The author is former ambassador to Vietnam.

Southeast Asia was colonized by the West since the 16th century. In the 20th century, the region became a battleground during World War II after Japan invaded to secure food and natural resources and expand its military activities.
Today, Southeast Asia is a production center and growth engine for the global economy, attracting massive foreign investments. It is a strategic point for the United States and China to get geopolitical and geo-economic leverage in Asia.
This year marks the 55th anniversary of the founding in 1967 of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). The group now has 10 member nations: Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos and Brunei. With a total 670 million population and a combined GDP of $3.65 trillion, Asean accounts for 3.5 percent of the world’s GDP.
Its members have diverse political systems, religions and cultures, not to mention different levels of economic development. Politically, the group believes in non-interventionism and decision-making based on unanimity to avoid clashes and promote harmony while seeking economic integration through free trade agreements (FTAs). The association has strived to facilitate its growth by pushing for open-door policies with economic powers outside of the region.
Asean also offers an important venue for diplomacy by inviting leaders of major countries to the annual Asean Summit. That reinforces its relations with South Korea, the U.S., China, India, Russia, Japan and the European Union. Still a group of weak countries in military and economic terms, Asean wants to prevent member nations from being victimized in armed clashes between powerful countries as in the past, attract support and cooperation with global powers, and elevate its stature on the international stage as part of a strategy for survival.
As Asean does not want U.S.-China competition to trigger insecurity in the region, it seeks to strike a balance between them strategically. Given its diverse mix of members from immature democracy to authoritarianism, Asean can hardly offer fertile ground for America to expand its free democracy to the region.
Foreign Minister Park Jin answers questions from reporters before departing for meetings with foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), including the conference for Asean Regional Forum (ARF), in Cambodia, August 3. [YONHAP]

After World War II, the U.S. maintained overwhelming military superiority in Southeast Asia by establishing an alliance with the Philippines and stationing military bases in Thailand and Singapore, but ignored expanding an economic partnership with Asean due to domestic discord, as seen in the Trump administration’s decision to not join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As the Sino-U.S. contest over economic hegemony intensified, however, America wants to offset China’s dominance in the region by creating the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).

Japan has been intensifying its influence in the region by strengthening economic relations with Southeast Asia through massive investments and infrastructure construction thanks to development cooperation funds. In the past, Japan was criticized by Asean for only seeking economic profits. But since the announcement of the 1977 Fukuda Doctrine pledging to not become a military power and to build mutual trust and cooperative relations based on equal footing, Japan has been promoting a foreign policy respecting Southeast Asia. According to a recent survey by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), a state-run think tank in Singapore, 54.2 percent of the Asean people trusted Japan followed by the U.S. (52.8 percent) and China (26.8 percent).

China’s effort to expand its influence in the region are based on its rapidly-growing economic and military power. It challenges American supremacy in the theater by building military facilities — such as airstrips and missile bases — in the South China Sea by defying the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that the nine-dash line drawn by China in the waters had no legal basis.

Encouraged by its huge market of 1.4 billon, China further deepens Asean’s reliance on it for trade and builds infrastructure in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to rapidly boost its influence in the region. Currently, China takes up the largest share — 20 percent — of Asean’s trade and is the second largest investor in the region after Japan. In an Iseas survey on the most influential country on Asean in economic terms, 76.7 percent of the respondents pointed to China, far ahead of America at 9.8 percent. In terms of political strategy, 54.4 percent chose China over America (29.7 percent).

Korea also has been augmenting economic partnerships with Asean member countries through brisk trade, investment and infrastructure construction. For Korea, Asean is its third largest destination for investment after the U.S. and EU — and its second largest trade partner after China. The Moon Jae-in administration made some achievements in diplomacy with Asean through its New Southern Policy. The government established the Bureau of Asean in the foreign ministry, expanded foreign missions in Southeast Asia, and held the Korea-Asean Summit in 2019.

Thanks to the improvement in economic relations with Asean and to the explosive expansion of the K-wave, local people’s awareness and favorability for Korea enhanced remarkably. The Iseas survey showed that 8.5 percent of Southeast Asians wanted to go to Korea first while 22.8 percent favored Japan and 8.4 percent America and 7.2 percent China.

But Korea lacks a strategic approach aimed to establish a win-win relation with Asean because of its persistent economic focus. Above all, Korea must abandon its image as an economic profit-seeker and try to get respect from Southeast Asia by becoming a responsible partner contributing to regional stability and prosperity.

First, Korea must enlarge the size of its official development assistance (ODA) — a major barometer of a country’s international contributions — to a level befitting a developed economy. Korea spends 28 percent of its entire ODA on Asean. But the size of its ODA is only one sixth of Japan’s. Korean companies must create jobs for the local people and positively react to local companies’ demand for more of their parts to be used for finished products.

Korea must encourage more Southeast Asian students to come to Korea for overseas study rather than China or Japan. In the survey, Southeast Asian students favored America (25.2 percent), Japan (9.6 percent) and China (8.8 percent). Only 2 percent favored Korea. Considering the growing number of migrant workers from Southeast Asia in Korea, the government must allow them to work without any systematic and cultural discrimination. That will not only help Korea earn favor and trust from Asean people but also help lift the ultra-low birthrate in Korea. It also must facilitate cultural exchanges with Asean to reduce potential resistance from the region over Korea’s unilateral soft power infiltration.

Second, Korea must play a creative role in leading economic development of the region by finding areas where the country can advance to Southeast Asia jointly with the U.S., Japan, Australia and the EU. Considering its geopolitical environment, it’s not easy for Seoul to expand its military and security alliance with Washington to the region, as in the cases of Tokyo and Canberra. Therefore, Korea can consider reinforcing cooperation with American and Japanese governments and companies in such areas as supply chains, infrastructure, clean energy and decarbonization, as specified in the IPEF, to advance into the region jointly. At the same time, Korea needs to find a joint action plan with America, Japan and Australia in areas with big economic and security significance, such as ODA or the defense industry.

That will offer a precious opportunity for Korea to complement its non-aggressive participation in the U.S.-led QUAD and Indo-Pacific Strategy. Given the low- to middle-income status of most Asean countries, it can help Korea to keep closer economic relations with them than with the West and China.
If tight economic ties between China and Asean get tighter, China’s presence and voice will be bigger. So, it will bolster peace and security of the region if the West — including Korea, Japan and Australia — contribute to the economic development of Asean and maintain a balance of power with China. It could be more meaningful if Korea can play a role in promoting stability and prosperity of the region in the process. That will also help Asean learn from Korea, which achieved democracy and economic development at the same time.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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