South Korea’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Dilemma

FOIP presents a dilemma to the Moon government, which is treading on a tightrope between the U.S. and China.

South Korea’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Dilemma
Credit: White House, Shealah Craighead

On his visit to Seoul in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump suggested to President Moon Jae-in that South Korea participate in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy, of which the ROK-U.S. alliance could be an integral part. Trump’s suggestion caught the Moon government off guard. Initially, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the suggestion, noting that a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was consistent with South Korea’s diplomatic strategy to diversify foreign relations. But the Blue House was unenthusiastic. Moon’s chief economic advisor flatly rejected the idea, claiming that FOIP is a Japanese initiative to link Japan with the United States, Australia, and India. Thus, South Korea stands to see little benefit from participating. A Blue House official confirmed that South Korea did not agree to join FOIP during the Trump-Moon summit. The explanation noted that it was “President Trump” who “highlighted that the United States-Republic of Korea alliance remains a linchpin for security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” not both Trump and Moon.

Unlike Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who went all-in on bilateral relations with the United States, Moon wants to split the difference between the U.S. and China. The Moon government understands that the ROK-U.S. alliance is the centerpiece of South Korea’s security and diplomacy. It also understands that, in order for the alliance partnership to be valid, South Korea needs to make a sizable contribution to the U.S. strategy toward Asia. But, at the same time, the Moon government believes that FOIP is designed to contain China. FOIP poses a foreign policy challenge to a Moon government that has been treading on a tightrope between the United States and China.