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Why South Korea Fell Behind Japan in Southeast Asia

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The Koreas | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Why South Korea Fell Behind Japan in Southeast Asia

Ironically, South Korea and ASEAN’s shared desire to avoid confronting China may be limiting Seoul’s attractiveness as a strategic partner for the region.

Why South Korea Fell Behind Japan in Southeast Asia

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (center, front) welcomes leaders from Southeast Asian states, including Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (back row, second from left) and then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (back row, right), for the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Commemorative Summit on November 25, 2019.

Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office

In recent years, both Japan and South Korea have sought to increase their respective roles in Southeast Asia and enhance their relationships with ASEAN member states. While South Korea is trying to expand its role in the region through its “New Southern Policy,” which recently was extended into the “New Southern Policy Plus,” Japan has continued to strengthen its political, economic and security relationship with the region.

However, there is a major difference in how the two countries and their offerings of partnership have been received in Southeast Asia. As shown in a 2020 survey, regional policymakers consider Japan as the most trusted security partner while South Korea, among the seven options listed, was the country least likely to be chosen as the “most preferred and trusted strategic partner for ASEAN.” This is puzzling for two reasons: first, in the context of Japan’s troubled history in the region, both its World War II occupation and decades of disengagement with the region up until the 1990s. Second, the interests of South Korea and Southeast Asia seem to be well aligned, with the New Southern Policy aiming to avoid getting Seoul caught in great power competition. South Korea is expanding its international ties and diversifying its economic relations through its focus on Southeast Asia partly in order to enhance its resilience against Chinese economic coercion. Intuitively, this ought to resonate well with Southeast Asian partners that likewise have an interest in managing the risks caused by great power politics in the region.

The two countries’ historic relations with Southeast Asia are widely different. South Korean foreign policy has historically been preoccupied with the country’s precarious situation, caught as it is in the stagnated conflict on the Korean Peninsula and between the major powers that surround it. Although South Korea has not been absent from Southeast Asia’s history, with Seoul, for example, participating in the Vietnam War, the country’s previous involvement in the region was mostly limited to being an ancillary of to the United States. Japan’s historic impact in Southeast Asia is far greater, with Japanese invasions and occupations throughout the region during World War II. That troubled history prevented a more active Japanese foreign policy in the post-war era and limited the means Tokyo had available in its policy vis-à-vis Southeast Asia for decades.

Much as the two countries history with the region differs, as do their respective policies toward it. South Korea’s New Southern Policy signifies an expansion of its ambitions in Southeast and South Asia, but the policy’s only engagement with security and defense cooperation is around uncontroversial issues such as counterpiracy. South Korea is thus not using the New Southern Policy as a tool for enhancing direct security and defense partnerships aimed at China but is rather increasing cooperation on non-military security, including health care and environmental protection. Moreover, even these areas of cooperation are taking a backseat to economic cooperation. While South Korea’s reputation as a security partner is low in the region, its engagement in other spheres seems to affect its reputation positively. Illustrating this quite well, Samsung is considered the preferred 5G developer in all but three Southeast Asian countries.

Japan’s approach to security and defense cooperation with Southeast Asia is similarly restrained but better succeeds in matching Southeast Asian security interests. Although Japan is unable to engage in much direct defense cooperation, in part due to what in practice is a ban on arms exports and Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, Tokyo has used targeted assistance to engage Southeast Asian countries. For example, Japan has focused on enhancing the coast guard capabilities of Southeast Asian countries. Although initiatives such as these are quite similar to the limited cooperation that South Korea is offering, Japan’s coast guard building and technology support commitment improves Southeast Asian countries’ ability to enforce maritime claims vis-à-vis China. In the context of China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, initiatives such as these, albeit limited, serve Southeast Asian security interests well. Apart from this limited security support, Japan is engaging with Southeast Asia in counterbalancing China through a combination of technological, economic, and diplomatic support. It is thus not any comprehensive security cooperation that is making Southeast Asian policymakers receptive to Japan as a partner, but the role Japan can play for Southeast Asia in the context of great power competition.

Unlike Japan’s policy of soft counterbalancing against China, it seems that South Korea’s attempts at avoiding great power politics, while in line with Southeast Asian strategic interests, are failing to stir any eagerness for South Korea as a security partner for the region. Paradoxically, it seems that this close alignment of interests instead is central to understanding why Southeast Asian policymakers are negatively inclined to a security partnership with South Korea.

South Korea’s precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula and the important role China plays in managing the Korean conflict limits South Korea’s ability and willingness to expand its cooperation with Southeast Asia in ways that could provoke China. Neither South Korea nor ASEAN members have a directly confrontational posture toward China. Precisely because of this, however, cooperation with Japan offers benefits to Southeast Asia that are not as apparent in a partnership with South Korea. Japan can act as a conduit for raising issues that are too sensitive for Southeast Asian countries, especially in regards to China. On this point, Japan as a security partner offers very tangible benefits to Southeast Asian countries unwilling to risk confrontation with an increasingly influential China. Given Southeast Asia’s strong economic and political links with China, Japan taking the lead in challenging China helps the region to maintain its own path. When asked how ASEAN ought to respond to being caught up in the middle of China-United States competition, Southeast Asian policymakers in the 2020 survey answered that “ASEAN should enhance its resilience and unity to fend of pressure from the two major powers.”

Also worth noting is that for the same question, seeking out third parties to broaden Southeast Asia’s strategic space was the preferred option of only 14.7 percent of respondents in the survey. Keeping this in mind, the choice of Japan as the most trusted partner in the event of choosing such a third party comes as less of a surprise. Although engaging with the cooperation South Korea is offering would certainly broaden Southeast Asia’s strategic space, such cooperation fails in sufficiently improving the region’s resilience in the face of great power competition. Hence, historical limitations on Japan’s relation with Southeast Asia aside, its greater ability and willingness to take a more confrontational stance with China seem to be striking a chord with Southeast Asian policymakers. The similarities in South Korea’s and Southeast Asia’s interests on the other hand, weaken rather than strengthens its reputation as a security partner for the region.