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South Korea aligns Indo-Pacific strategy with US, Japan: experts

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) US President Joe Biden (center) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attend a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Sunday. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) US President Joe Biden (center) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attend a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Sunday. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s first diplomatic strategy for the Indo-Pacific region appears to show the intention to align with the United States in the US-China rivalry, experts based in Seoul said Monday.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday unveiled the country's first Indo-Pacific strategy for freedom, peace and prosperity for the region, at the biannual Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia.

There, Yoon highlighted the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region -- which has gained increasing strategic importance amid the US-China competition -- and said any unilateral change in the status quo by force should not be tolerated.

"Based on the three key visions of freedom, peace and prosperity, and under the three key cooperation principles of inclusiveness, trust and reciprocity, we will implement the Indo-Pacific strategy," Yoon said.

Receiving much support from the US and Japan for the release of the Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea vowed a trilateral partnership for a "free and open Indo-Pacific" with the two countries, issuing the trilateral statement on Sunday.

In the Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, Yoon jointly affirmed with US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida their trilateral partnership for a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

"The leaders welcome their respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific, and agreed to be in solidarity in pursuit of a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive, resilient and secure," the US White House said in the statement explaining the Phnom Penh Statement.

Experts here say the Korean version of the Indo-Pacific strategy shows that South Korea has aligned its diplomatic course to lean toward the US, and conflict with China may be inevitable.

"The three countries basically agreed on building a cooperative system under the Indo-Pacific strategy framework, going further than just sharing their thoughts," Hong Min, director of the North Korean research division at the Korea Institute for National Unification told The Korea Herald.

"The content (of Korea's Indo-Pacific strategy) is comprehensively dealing with not only the economy but also security, and it can be understood both at the surface level and virtually that Korea has joined the Indo-Pacific concept pursued by the US."

"South Korea does not say directly that its strategy is aimed at containing China, but its values are aligned with that of the US and some kind of conflict with China is likely to occur in the future," Hong said.

The strategic concept of tying the Indian and Pacific oceans together expands the geographical demarcation of the Asia-Pacific region to include India. Strongly promoted by Japan and the US, the Indo-Pacific concept has largely been perceived as designed to hold the intention to contain the growing influence of China in the region.

"Korea's Indo-Pacific strategy does look like the country has taken a step or two further to join the US efforts to keep China in check. But looking at the joint statement, the three countries still have left some room (for South Korea and China ties)," Park Won-gon, a professor in the department of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University said.

Park explained that how the statement states, "the leaders agreed to closely cooperate in implementing their various Indo-Pacific Strategies" in the Phnom Penh Statement on Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, shows that the leaders share the understanding of the different relations they have with China.

Former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy Kim Joon-hyung also said the Korean version of the Indo-Pacific strategy is making official that South Korea is taking sides with the US.

“The Indo-Pacific strategy is strengthening the bond of maritime forces, and there is no continent, meaning it does not include China, North Korea and Russia,” Kim said in a local radio interview Monday.

Affirming freedom, human rights and democracy was not remarkable in itself, Kim said, but strongly emphasizing them ultimately excluded countries that do not share those pursuits.

Kim also claimed that the US would want South Korea to play a role in persuading member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take the US side against China, taking advantage of Korea's strong network with the bloc.

Yoon’s presidential office maintains that the Indo-Pacific strategy is not intended at keeping China in check.

“(The Indo-Pacific strategy) is the country’s first comprehensive regional strategy, and it means our diplomatic perspective has expanded to meet the country’s national dignity and status,” national security adviser Kim Sung-han told a press briefing on Saturday.

“Strengthening rule-based international order pursuing common values meets our national interest,” Kim said.

At the same time, Kim underscored that the country’s pursuit of common values does not mean it intends to exclude countries that do not share those values.

“It does not mean that we will condemn or exclude the countries that do not share our pursuit of the common values. What it means is that we will openly cooperate (with those countries) for common goals of interest, but take stern response measures against attempts to harm the common values and rule-based international order,” Kim added.

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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