A pivotal middle power

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A pivotal middle power

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

The author is a professor of international relations at King’s College London and KF-VUB Korea Chair at Brussels School of Governance, Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

President Yoon Suk-yeol wants to transform South Korea into a global pivotal state. A good starting point would be to become a pivotal middle power.

Last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud all visited South Korea after attending the G20 summit in Indonesia. Other leaders also had plans to visit South Korea, and will probably do so in the coming months. Plus, the leaders of Indonesia or Nigeria, for example, have already met with President Yoon in Seoul. Meanwhile, the South Korean president has visited Canada. In other words, South Korea is a popular middle power that other middle powers seek out as a partner.

Why is this the case? From the perspective of fellow middle powers, there are three good reasons why South Korea is a preferred partner.

To begin with, South Korea has managed to become a fairly independent foreign policy actor sitting in the most dynamic and important region in contemporary geopolitics. East Asia is where U.S.-China rivalry plays out most clearly. And South Korea has taken advantage of its position to become a respected voice in the region.

For sure, South Korea has a strong alliance with the United States, as Japan does. But there is little doubt that successive South Korean governments have tried to maintain a more independent foreign policy than their neighbor to the east. This matters in global affairs.

Furthermore, South Korea has world-leading economic, military, technological and cultural capabilities. There is something for everyone. Last week, Spanish Prime Minister Sanchez focused on cooperation in electric vehicles and renewable energies, among others. Dutch Prime Minister Rutte prioritized cooperation in semiconductor supply chain resilience above all else. As for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he focused on South Korean infrastructure investment in the smart city he is trying to set up. Recently, Poland made the biggest-ever purchase of South Korean military equipment by a NATO member.

Compare this with Indonesia, another fairly independent middle power in East Asia. The Southeast Asian country does not possess the economic, military or technological capabilities that South Korea does. It is this combination of relative independence and strong capabilities that makes South Korea such an attractive partner.

But there is more to it. Yet another important reason why other middle powers seek cooperation with South Korea is that it is not a controversial partner. It is a strong democracy, so the leaders of other democracies can meet with Yoon without generating controversy back home. It is a military power, but it does not go about invading other countries or threatening to launch a strike on them. And multiple chaebol world-beating firms, but no one sees South Korea as an actor bent on economic hegemony or the economic isolation of other countries.

The foreign policy implications for South Korea’s quest to become a Global Pivotal State are clear. Seoul certainly benefits from its alliance with Washington, which no doubt will continue to be a key cornerstone of its foreign policy.

At the same time, however, South Korea can develop a network of middle power partners seeking to manage U.S.-China rivalry and deal with Beijing’s growing aggressiveness.

This network will necessarily be loose in the sense that each different partner will complement South Korea in a different way. Australia has natural resources to offer and an appetite for South Korean weapons. India wants South Korean technology and investment above everything else. The UK seeks strong trade and investment links plus a security partnership.

It will pay for South Korea to play to its many strengths while being flexible to accommodate the interests of its potential partners. After all, South Korea’s wide range of capabilities allow it to deal with each partner in a different way. For there are many roads to become a Global Pivotal State. And one within Seoul’s reach is to become the middle power of choice for its fellow middle powers.
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