Seoul’s Middle-Power Turn in Samarkand?

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Seoul’s Middle-Power Turn in Samarkand?

Park Geun-hye’s recent trip to Central Asia was a great deal more than it seemed.

Seoul’s Middle-Power Turn in Samarkand?
Credit: REUTERS/Jung Yeon-je/Pool

President Xi Jinping of China arrived last Thursday for his first state visit to South Korea. Pundits were quick to claim that the visit demonstrates Beijing’s desire to “unsettle” one of America’s most important alliances in the region. From an analyst’s perspective, however, rather than looking at Beijing’s actions, it may be wiser to focus on Seoul’s. The clearest indication of Seoul’s position lies not in Xi’s visit to Seoul, but in South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s visit to Samarkand.

Park visited Central Asia June 16-22, stopping in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. On the surface, the trip appeared mundane. Indeed, it almost seemed a revival of the previous Lee Myung-Bak administration’s unrelenting “resource diplomacy.” In resources, Central Asia and South Korea seem like the perfect match: Central Asia is rich in resources but lacks capital, as well as infrastructure and technological capacity. South Korea is poor in resources, but has capital, as well as infrastructure expertise and technological capacity. Central Asian states are seeking to diversify away from their dependence on the Russian and Chinese export and capital markets, while South Korea is seeking to diversify away from its energy dependence on Middle-East energy markets. Resource diplomacy is the default role of South Korea in Central Asia.

Korean media reporting on the visit stayed close to the letter of presidential office press releases, highlighting the mundane facts. The press detailed presidential visits to the diaspora community: descendants of Koreans living in the Russian Far East border areas who were exiled by Stalin in the lead up to the Second World War. Now numbering approximately 500,000 across Central Asia, they provided an early cultural and commercial link between South Korea and Central Asia, despite being regarded as exemplars of Russification and model Soviet citizens before the Soviet collapse and having little interest in far-off Korea after the collapse.

The press also detailed presidential visits to infrastructure and resource projects. This included South Korean participation in the Kandym Bukhara Gas Field project in Uzbekistan; construction of a coal fired power station in Kazakhstan; the construction of a gas-chemical plant and gas-to-fuel refinery in Turkmenistan; as well as a vast number of other projects both underway and planned. If the presidential press releases had stopped here, it would have just been another successful, albeit mundane, jaunt in the name of resource diplomacy.

Importantly, however, the press releases from the presidential office and subsequent media reporting focused on another aspect of the trip: the Eurasia Initiative. This was highlighted during Park’s visit to the ancient city of Samarkand, a stopover on the Silk Road, the 1400-year-old trade route connecting Europe to Asia.

The Eurasia Initiative is an ambitious plan to link Europe and Asia by connecting transportation, logistics, trade and energy infrastructure networks across the Eurasian continent. Launching the initiative in October 2013, Park spoke of the reinvigoration of the Silk Road – the building of a new Silk Road, a logistics network that would stretch from London to Busan replacing current seaborne transportation of 45 days with overland transportation of 14 days.

Winning Central Asian support for the Eurasia initiative was an important step in further convincing China and Russia of the value of the Eurasia Initiative. Herein lies the real aim behind the Eurasia Initiative. The initiative will build momentum from Europe, through Central Asia, China and Russia to open up North Korea. As South Korea’s initiative grows, and the potential benefits become clearer, the new Silk Road would aid in strengthening the resolve in China and Russia to encourage North Korea to behave more responsibly and to better reflect regionally acceptable norms. The Eurasia Initiative has medium to long-term strategic implications.

However, the Eurasia Initiative also implies that the role of the United States in dealing with North Korea is less relevant. It ultimately seeks cooperation with Russia and China in order to deal with the North. This has massive strategic implications. By looking west rather than east, South Korea is viewing its future as best served in cooperation with a continental power rather than a maritime power. A future defined by success on the continent reduces the relative importance of the maritime environment.

South Korea has traditionally seen its strategic position as analogous to that of the United States. In particular, South Korea’s position vis-à-vis North Korea has always been viewed through a lens tinted in American colors. Even at the height of the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea, Seoul’s approach did not greatly deviate from Washington’s medium to long-term strategic policy, which viewed North Korea’s days as numbered. So what just happened in Samarkand?

Middle-power theory gives us a few clues, but may also obfuscate the obvious. The most common definition of a middle-power is a state that is positioned in the middle of the global hierarchy of power. Much of the research on middle powers suggests that during periods of high security tension they accept the leadership of a major power ally. During periods of low security tension they seek to play more independent roles, building institutions to help constrain the actions of major powers and maximize their negotiating power.

Thus, during the Second World War, states such as Australia and Canada dutifully accepted the major decisions of the United States. At the end of the war and during peace settlement negotiations, they sought to constrain major power action, arguing against the veto in the United Nations Security Council, and arguing for a special permanent seat for middle powers. Accordingly, following this, it could be argued that South Korea is merely seeking to play a more independent role, opening up its options, but would be ready to return to the fold if insecurity increased.

However, much of this research on middle powers derives from Australia and Canada. It predominantly utilizes Australia, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Netherlands, and a host of other similar states as exemplary middle powers. We can call these “Type A” middle powers.

There are also many other types of middle powers. One sub-category of middle powers are those that are in positions of strategic pivot. Their strategic importance, by virtue of geography, size or influence, means that they are coveted strategic assets in periods of insecurity. Major power states will seek to control them either directly or indirectly. Examples of such states are Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and of course Korea.

These states have a very different range of strategic options in comparison to states such as Canada and Australia. Their options focus on survival through hedging and strengthening their alliance with a major power, armed neutrality, or turning towards a rising power. During changes in the relative strength of major powers, they also always face the risk of division, as political groups within the country battle over the best option for survival. We can call these “Type B” middle powers.

This raises a question: Is South Korea acting as a Type A middle power, seeking to increase its independence during periods of relative security, ready to return to the fold in periods of relative insecurity, or is South Korea acting as a Type B middle power, taking the early steps towards an eventual turn to a rising China? As pundits ponder Xi Jinping’s visit, the truth may already lie in Seoul’s middle-power turn in far-off Samarkand.

Jeffrey Robertson is a visiting professor at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management.