Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

Why South Korea Should Be Key to a Revised US Indo-Pacific Approach

COVID-19 highlights the need to address nontraditional security issues in the region – something South Korea has great expertise in.

Kyle Ferrier
Why South Korea Should Be Key to a Revised US Indo-Pacific Approach
Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Much as it has done for nearly everything else, COVID-19 has laid bare the shortcomings of the United States’ free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. In reflecting on how Washington’s approach to the region should be amended to advance American interests and those of partners in the region, it is clear that the best path forward runs through South Korea much more than the current policy does.

While FOIP is multifaceted, it has so far skewed more toward defense concerns. Progress on the economic and governance pillars of the strategy have been overshadowed by security matters, such as freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and initiatives to grow the U.S. military presence in the region. The administration has also not minced words that a core objective of the strategy is to directly push back against a rising China, which Washington has criticized outright as a revisionist power. This has contributed to strained relations between the two powers in recent years as well as resulted in some caution about Washington’s approach from Indo-Pacific partners that see Beijing in less black and white terms.

However, that the pandemic has completely upended all other priorities highlights a previously underappreciated need to address nontraditional security issues. Though perhaps less of a concern during normal times, the novel coronavirus has demonstrated the immense potential impact of global health emergencies. Yet public health is hardly the only nontraditional security issue to be worried about. Scientists for years have warned about impending disasters brought about by climate change without the necessary measures now to curb its worst effects.

In light of the widespread fallout of COVID-19, notable foreign policy pundits and former senior government officials alike have advocated for a shift in U.S. public spending from the military to health and other nontraditional security areas like climate change. What’s more, the nature of these issues will require cooperation with Beijing to sufficiently address, especially on climate change as China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Applying this shift to Washington’s Indo-Pacific approach would effectively be opening the door for Seoul to have a more prominent role in the U.S. regional agenda, which has so far proved too adversarial toward China for South Korea to wholly endorse. South Korea is reliant on China for both trade and diplomacy with North Korea. Last year, South Korea’s over $136 billion in merchandise exports to China amounted to a quarter of all exports. Because South Korea is so dependent on exports for growth, this also represented about 8 percent of GDP. As Chinese President Xi Jinping’s summit diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018 and 2019 demonstrated, Beijing is a major player in influencing diplomatic – and ultimately political, economic, and security – progress with Pyongyang. For Seoul, posing a direct challenge to China in the regional context – as FOIP is perceived to be doing – risks disrupting a crucial economic pipeline and much-needed support north of the border.

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But a reframing of FOIP would not just mean more cooperation between Seoul and Washington for its own sake. Rather, it would tangibly buttress U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific due to South Korea’s proven expertise and capability in key nontraditional security areas as well as its ability to facilitate and even lead discussion among regional partners.

South Korea has proven itself as one of the most effective countries in the world in fighting COVID-19 and is actively seeking to apply this success to support global and regional efforts. Despite the slight uptick in cases in recent weeks, South Korea’s model of combating the virus – focused on widespread testing and contact tracing – continues to demonstrate it is worth emulating. Particularly as questions linger about the ability of democracies to manage the coronavirus compared to autocratic governments, South Korea is an exemplar of how countries can still contain the virus while pursuing the same “free and open” values the United States is seeking to uphold in the Indo-Pacific.

Additionally, Seoul has taken an active role in sending COVID-19 diagnostic kits abroad, including to neighbors such as Indonesia and the Philippines. South Korean President Moon Jae-in also committed South Korea to extra support for regional partners in a special ASEAN+3 summit on April 14, which has so far included more aid to Myanmar and funding for the Asian Development Bank.

Seoul has further emphasized the importance of pursuing climate conscious policies in fighting the virus, reinforcing its broader efforts. As part of its stimulus package, the Moon administration is planning to enact a Green New Deal. The details of the plan are expected to be fully revealed this month, but in the leadup to the National Assembly elections in April, Moon’s Democratic Party platform laid out ambitious goals for a Korean New Deal, including the county going carbon neutral by 2050. Though there are certainly plenty of obstacles to achieving such lofty targets, that climate concerns feature so prominently in current public policy is indicative of how seriously the threat is being taken.

Moreover, South Korea’s commitment to mutually beneficial cooperation and serving as an honest broker in the region could help to catalyze cooperation in these areas between China and the United States amid their deteriorating relationship. That this appears so difficult in the current geopolitical environment only underscores how critical this role would be when thinking about the potential costs of disjointed responses regarding global health and climate issues.

To be sure, even with a shift in focus in the U.S. Indo-Pacific approach to better incorporate nontraditional security issues and mixed efforts to engage with China in some areas while pushing back in others, Seoul’s endorsement should not be immediately expected due to existing concerns with invoking Beijing’s ire. Still, such a move would broaden the scope for South Korea and the United States to work together to advance pressing, mutual objectives. But, perhaps more importantly, it should help precipitate a much-needed broader recognition of how Seoul’s outreach in the Indo-Pacific furthers the same values the United States is pursuing outside of traditional defense issues, regardless of whether it is working directly with Washington.

U.S. military strength in the Indo-Pacific is a means to an end, not an end in itself. As the “free and open” in its name suggests, the promotion of values is FOIP’s chief goal. In this sense, South Korea’s diplomacy should not only be viewed as upholding shared values in the region, but as a values multiplier. This is ultimately worth just as much toward U.S. goals as military cooperation, and will likely be more so given the major nontraditional security challenges that lie ahead.

A much narrower view of South Korea has contributed to Trump administration policies that have strained the bilateral relationship, such as demands for more military burden-sharing, which ultimately pressure ties at the regional level as well. Indeed, this limited perspective can also be found elsewhere in U.S. policy circles with criticisms that the regional level is the “donut hole” of the U.S.-South Korea relationship because Seoul is less active than some other partners in traditional security initiatives.

New challenges highlighted by the pandemic will require a fundamental change in how the United States envisions the future of the Indo-Pacific regardless of who is in the White House in January 2021. Some of this certainly should include rethinking how different partners bring different value to advancing the rules-based regional order, but there is also plenty of additional room to address daunting new problems. Either way, all signs point to South Korea as needing to be more central to Washington’s outlook for the region.

This piece is adapted from a longer article published by the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs. The full-length paper can be viewed here.