South Korea is transitioning toward “strategic clarity” with its Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and its tilt toward its alliance with the United States and trilateral cooperation with the U.S. and Japan alliances. Amid those shifts, it is clear that ASEAN would become a primary strategic focus for Seoul’s “Global Pivotal State” ambitions through the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative (KASI). This brings about several important regional considerations.
Despite the IPS’ overall shift toward regional assertiveness as compared to the “balanced diplomacy” of the previous New Southern Policy (NSP), the emphasis on “inclusiveness” within the IPS and KASI continues to account for the strategic autonomy of South Korea and ASEAN member states, even when within the Indo-Pacific frame. This is further reinforced by Seoul’s strong commitment to ASEAN centrality and major ASEAN initiatives, such as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
Aside from enhanced economic and sociocultural cooperation in KASI, the addition of comprehensive security cooperation, particularly in cyber issues, maritime security, and the defense industry, shows a deliberate focus on security issues. Importantly, however, by sharing many other sectoral foci and continuing regional projects already underway in the NSP, the Yoon administration demonstrates continuity and increases confidence for long-term bilateral engagement.
Additionally, KASI reflects South Korea’s pragmatism and sensitivity toward its regional partnerships. Both South Korea and ASEAN member states must continue to simultaneously manage the strategic balance between the United States and China. As ASEAN and South Korea already possess strong economic and sociocultural ties, it is essential for KASI to constructively “tailor” mutually beneficial relations according to the varied national concerns and interests of Southeast Asian states.
As two-like minded countries, Singapore and South Korea already share many aligned interests and national characteristics. Strong economic incentives exist, with the Korea-Singapore Free Trade Agreement entering into force back in 2006 – South Korea’s first FTA with an ASEAN state. Both countries share strong regional concerns, such as traditional and non-traditional security threats, supply chain disruptions, and economic uncertainty. To mitigate these, they also participate and meet regularly through multilateral ASEAN groupings, be it at the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, or its various minilateral subgroups.
Bilateral relations accelerated during the Moon administration’s NSP era. Six bilateral memoranda of understanding (MOUs) were signed, covering the environment, free trade, smart grids, digitalization, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and economic investment, during South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to Singapore in July 2018 – the first such state visit in 15 years. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s state visit to Seoul in November 2019 similarly saw four MOUs signed on standards and conformance, pharmaceutics, smart cities, and cybersecurity.
Singapore was the site of the launch of the first K-Startup Center (KSC) in Southeast Asia in July 2020. A few months later, in October 2020, the Hyundai Motor Group Innovation Center broke ground in Singapore.
In maritime security, a joint maritime exercise was also conducted in April 2019 at the culmination of the two countries’ co-chairmanship of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Maritime Security from 2017 to 2020. MOUs have also been signed on maritime information sharing in May 2021, as well as cybersecurity cooperation in 2019.
In the Yoon administration, bilateral ties have continued to deepen. In May 2022, Singapore’s then-President Halimah Yacob attended the inauguration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, and shortly after two MOUs were signed on defense cooperation and media production in June 2022. In August 2022, the Korea Tourism Startup Center (KTSC) – the first of its kind to be established overseas – was opened, and in October 2022, a memorandum of intent (MOI) was signed between South Korea’s’ largest startup accelerator, D·CAMP, and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore.
The digital economy has been a focal aspect for strengthening relations, with the landmark Korea-Singapore Digital Partnership Agreement (KSDPA) coming into force in January 2023, as well as three MOUs on implementing the Korea-Singapore Digital Economy Dialogue; the electronic exchange of data for the KSDPA; and artificial intelligence (AI) cooperation. Subsequently, in July 2023, an MOU was signed to collaborate on sharing air quality data and R&D on environmental and pollution issues.
For Singapore-South Korea cooperation through KASI, emerging digital technologies, especially in AI, digital infrastructure, smart cities, and quantum technology, are poised to maintain a central role. Singapore’s strategic commitment to these areas is evident through various initiatives, including the National AI Strategy in 2019, the Digital Connectivity Blueprint in 2023, and the National Quantum Office in 2022. The Smart Nation and Digital Government Group (SNDGG) has likewise been at the forefront of Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative. Further joint R&D, talent development, and innovation projects in such sectors would be key.
The cybersecurity of critical infrastructure is also important, such as in information and communication systems; healthcare; transportation, such as in rail, air and sea; energy grids, and finance and cross-border business. Cooperation in sustainable development should continue to be pursued, possibly through the establishment of a bilateral Green Economy Agreement to foster frameworks for collaboration, R&D, and rules standardization. Low-carbon energy sources, regional energy grids, and renewable options like solar energy, are also key areas of alignment with Singapore’s Green Plan 2030.
An area of untapped potential that is not referenced in KASI is nuclear energy safety and security. Although Singapore does not have a nuclear energy strategy, the government has shown interest to monitor and assess nuclear energy as a low-carbon solution in line with Energy 2050 goals. Conversely, nuclear energy is a critical aspect of the IPS as part of the Yoon administration’s aim to revitalize South Korea’s nuclear ecosystem. Particularly, Seoul has sought to invest 400 billion won in the domestic development of advanced small modular reactors (SMRs), which are designed with greater scalability and siting flexibility.
South Korea’s nuclear technology is closely developed with the United States and bound to obligations under the 123 Agreement. The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) has also had a strong track record of bilateral cooperation on safety, regulation and research, including with ASEAN member states such as Thailand and Vietnam. South Korea has also been a reliable nuclear partner, particularly with the UAE on the Barakah NPP. More importantly, partnerships with South Korea may potentially avoid the geopolitical baggage from long-term energy commitment with other large exporters of nuclear energy, such as China and Russia.
Constructive initial steps should focus on capacity-building agreements to further explore nuclear energy safety and security, akin to or perhaps in conjunction with the United States’ Foundational Infrastructure for the Responsible Use of SMR Technology (FIRST) Program, which Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, and Indonesia have participated in. Specifically, on small modular reactor technology, the use of advanced nuclear fuels, site location, security, regulatory challenges, emergency response, and public relations are all examples of valuable expertise sharing that could be integrated with KASI. As cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is referenced in the IPS, other regional multilateral organizations, such as the ASEAN Network of Regulatory Bodies on Atomic Energy (ASEANTOM), could also help to facilitate these efforts.
It is vital to ensure substantive viability, political suitability, and mutual benefit to develop meaningful, long-term relations. This extends to security cooperation. While such cooperation is welcome, it is crucial that when addressing geopolitically sensitive issues, such as maritime security in the South China Sea, care is taken to prevent unforeseen or escalatory consequences. More broadly, it is imperative that Singapore-South Korea projects are substantively resilient to endure political change and mitigate uncertainty. As potential collaboration also touches on future issues, South Korea should remain proactive in seeking discussions on structural coordination and policy development for such new areas.