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[Alex Soohoon Lee] Imagining a South Korea-US-ASEAN tripartite partnership

The world highlighted the success of the Republic of Korea in dealing with COVID-19, and President Moon Jae-in recently shared South Korea’s strategy with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN, a regional intergovernmental organization composed of 10 nations in Southeast Asia, is South Korea’s second-largest trading partner and its second-biggest investment market. Since the start of bilateral relations in 1989, the volume of bilateral trade has grown nearly 20-fold. ASEAN countries are all-time favorite travel destinations for South Koreans: Nearly 8 million visited the region in 2018. The South Korea-ASEAN diplomatic golden age has come about with South Korea’s New Southern Policy.

The New Southern Policy, designed and implemented by the Moon government, is an all-inclusive policy that aims to advance economic and diplomatic cooperation with the ASEAN community to the level that South Korea maintains with the US. The Korea-US alliance, surpassing the level of a friendly bilateral relationship, has been referred to as a blood alliance or a values alliance. Forged in the Korean War, the alliance was consolidated by blood spilled together. Embracing the values of democracy and a market economy, South Korea has been a devotee of the US-led liberal international order. Although the recent Korea-US relationship has been relegated to a “transactional alliance” in light of the “America First” credo, President Moon and President Donald Trump nevertheless reached a consensus to promote harmonious cooperation between South Korea’s New Southern Policy and the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy.

How about US-ASEAN relations? President Trump has emphasized several times how ASEAN suitably fits into the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy. Although deferred due to COVID-19, President Trump and ASEAN leaders had originally planned a summit meeting in Las Vegas. ASEAN, already struggling to cope with China in both security and economic aspects, seems to crave democratic US leadership in the region. In sum, South Korea, the US and ASEAN indeed share mutual interests generated from their interactions and it is time for us to imagine a South Korea-US-ASEAN tripartite partnership. Before going any further, however, it is necessary to define the motivation of the three parties and the means of developing the partnership.

For ASEAN, the needs are crystal clear. ASEAN wants the tripartite partnership to work toward maintaining a peaceful security environment in the Southeast Asian region, including the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” seems to have brought security imbalances to the region through its territorial claims and island militarization in the South China Sea. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road indicates China’s growing control over one of the most resource-rich marginal seas in the world. Moreover, by pouring heavy investments into the region, China is expanding its sphere of influence, which may overwhelm the ASEAN economy. For ASEAN, in this regard, inviting the “rule-based” US to the region could be the best bet.

What about the US? ASEAN is both a strategic and lucrative partner. It is a strategic partner because, by pursuing a tripartite partnership, ASEAN technically would allow the US to legitimately enter the gateway of the South China Sea, thus providing the US with an opportunity to geopolitically compete with and contain China. In the end, ASEAN may turn out to be one of the most lucrative partners for the US since it may provide a space to gradually substitute China’s economic initiative in the region. In this regard, ASEAN is certainly a blue chip that the US must reach out to.

Lastly, South Korea, while enjoying the abovementioned economic and security benefits, can utilize the tripartite partnership with ASEAN and the US to achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea, like South Korea, maintains relations with each and every member of ASEAN. It means there could be a diplomatic opportunity found in both South Korea-ASEAN and North Korea-ASEAN relations that may work toward improving inter-Korean relations. As a matter of fact, both US-North Korea summits were held in Southeast Asia. In this respect, South Korea may be the greatest beneficiary of the tripartite partnership.

In moving forward, South Korea’s s role is essential. South Korea is in a position to act as a mediator toward the formation of a South Korea-US-ASEAN tripartite partnership. South Korea, having a footing in both the South Korea-US alliance and South Korea-ASEAN relations, could play the role of connecting the two. The New Southern Policy would act as priming water that links the two ends, becoming the cornerstone of the partnership.

Most importantly, to create the partnership, the direction and contents of the New Southern Policy should be restructured in accordance with the needs of ASEAN and the US. To do so, horizontal and vertical expansion of its agenda, which now mainly focuses on economic cooperation, seems inevitable. Considering the Indo-Pacific strategy, a security initiative, South Korea finding its role and perhaps consulting with ASEAN members about their roles in the Indo-Pacific strategy may be one way to create a soft landing for the tripartite partnership. It will take time and energy to build trust among parties. Only after the economic trust is built can security and political agendas be drawn up. After all, it’s all about imagination.

By Alex Soohoon Lee

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Alex Soohoon Lee holds a Ph.D. in international relations and is an associate research fellow with the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. -- Ed.
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