The Korea-ASEAN Commemorative Summit opens in Busan on Thursday, bringing together leaders of 10 Southeast Asian countries and about 3,000 officials, businesspeople and other delegates.
The second summit between Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations commemorates the 25th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the two sides.
The summit, which will be accompanied by business and cultural events, could not come at a better time, as the two sides need a fresh impetus to elevate their partnership to new heights in the coming decades.
Ties between Korea and ASEAN have made great strides since they formed dialogue relations in 1989, with economic cooperation taking the lead.
ASEAN has become Korea’s second-largest trading partner and second-largest destination of foreign investment, while Korea has become ASEAN’s fifth-largest trading partner.
What should be further noted is that ASEAN has a huge potential for future economic development. As a group, the region has been attaining economic growth of an average of about 5 percent; about 60 percent of its population is under 35; and its middle class has doubled.
Moreover, this already attractive market is poised to complete integration by launching the ASEAN Community by the end of next year. We are about to witness the birth of an economic bloc with a population of 640 million and a gross domestic product totaling $2.4 trillion.
ASEAN is also in the center of the talk for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which will also include Australia, New Zealand and India. If bridged with the future Korea-Japan-China trilateral free trade agreement, the partnership could pave the way for the establishment of an East Asian Economic Community.
Grouped together, the 16 countries will account for about 45 percent of the world’s population and more than 30 percent of it’s gross domestic product.
These things tell us that ASEAN will play an increasingly important role in the regional and global economy and that Korea needs to be an active partner in bilateral and multilateral cooperation.
Closer partnership is no less important in political and security areas, all the more so the East Asian region is seeking a new order amid the superpowers’ maneuvers to seize hegemony in the region.
Both Korea and ASEAN could act as a balancer and a buffer in the region, where big powers like the U.S., China and Japan are exploring a new order that would maximize their respective interests.
ASEAN’s importance cannot be overemphasized regarding North Korea as well. All its 10 members maintain official relations with North Korea, with some of them close to the Pyongyang government. That three countries ― Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos ― voted against the recent U.N. resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea reminds us of the importance of securing ASEAN’s support on North Korean issues.
The Korea-ASEAN summit comes at a time when socio-cultural exchanges between the two sides are flourishing. About 4.6 million Koreans visited ASEAN countries last year and about 1.6 million Southeast Asians came to Korea. About 370,000 people from ASEAN countries have resettled in Korea.
What is promising is that in general, Koreans feel friendlier toward Southeast Asians than some other neighbors. As seen in the popularity of hallyu and Korean products in the region, Southeast Asians also have generally positive perceptions of Korea and its people.
Perhaps this sentiment is based on the fact that both Korea and ASEAN have grown into middle powers after overcoming colonial rule by aggressors and poverty and they do not have thorny issues like security and territorial disputes.
This common bond will surely help the two sides build a more solid path for their future. It is hoped that President Park Geun-hye and the 10 ASEAN leaders, who will sum up their agreements in a “vision statement,” will lay a new milestone on the path for another quarter-century of friendship and cooperation.