May 23, 2022
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk-yeol formalized the country’s participation in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, a US-led regional initiative, during his first summit with US President Joe Biden.
As the two leaders have announced plans to elevate their strategic cooperation in economic and security areas, experts here say the South Korean administration is making an official shift in policy by supporting Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, for its bigger role in the region.
In their first bilateral summit on Saturday, Yoon and Biden expressed commitment to cooperate closely through the IPEF on the principles of openness, transparency, and inclusiveness.
In a joint statement with Yoon, Biden said he shares his support for “Yoon’s initiative to formulate the ROK’s own Indo-Pacific strategy framework,” recognizing the South Korean government’s desires to expand its presence in the region. ROK refers to Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
While welcoming the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy in the joint statement, Yoon also expressed a commitment to increasing cooperation with Southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries to promote sustainable development, energy security and high-quality transparent investment, as well as high-quality infrastructure.
“The world maintained a principle of common and free trade norms under the supervision of the World Trade Organization. But many blocs were created amid the COVID-19 crisis, and risks in the supply chain linger nowadays,” Yoon said in a press conference after his summit with Biden on Saturday, providing the reason behind the decision to join the US-led economic framework.
The US maintains that the economic initiative is aimed at setting up common regional standards for sectors including supply-chain resilience, clean energy, infrastructure, digital trade and cybersecurity.
But it is widely viewed as the US’ attempt to form a regional coalition to exclude China from the global supply chain amid an intensifying US-China rivalry.
With their shared values in the backdrop, Yoon and Biden also decided to launch a strategic consultation channel called the Economic Security Dialogue under their respective presidential offices to discuss cooperation on the key economic areas.
Meanwhile, Yoon has shown an interest in working more closely with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a US-led security grouping which includes India, Japan and Australia.
But the US said it is not considering Seoul’s participation in the group for now.
“It’s natural… to think about ways in which you can work with other like-minded democracies, but I think it’s also important to recognize that the goal right now is to develop and build out what has already been laid out,” a senior US administration official was quoted as saying by Reuters on Sunday.
The leaders of the Quad’s member countries are set to hold their second face-to-face meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday. It will be the group’s fourth meeting since Biden was inaugurated.
Korea’s policy shift for Indo-Pacific region
South Korea’s joining the US-led economic framework and its intentions to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region shows that the Yoon administration is clearly taking the US’ side in the US-China rivalry, experts here said.
“By declaring its participation in the IPEF, the Yoon administration has made clearer its intention to take part in the US’ efforts to reorganize the world order, as in its Indo-Pacific strategies,” Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute told The Korea Herald.
The previous Moon Jae-in administration pursued a “New Southern Policy,” which symbolized their cautious stance in navigating relations between Washington and Beijing.
But Yoon’s statements in the latest summit signals a reorientation of Korea’s foreign policy to move away from his predecessor.
“The previous government had distanced itself from taking similar demands from the US, while the Yoon administration seems to clearly stand on the US’ side,” Chung said.
Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said Saturday’s summit demonstrates the Korean government’s attempt to redirect its foreign policy. This is actually the starting point for the Yoon administration establishment of its “grand strategy” for foreign policy, Park said.
“While the Yoon administration has announced its desires to expand its role in the region, it needs to bring a more concrete plan for promoting values, like how the US has its rule-based order strategy,” Park told The Korea Herald.
According to Park, the slight differences in wording between the US’ and South Korea’s joint statements indicate that the Yoon administration is also cautious about fully absorbing the regional strategy of the US.
“The Yoon administration agreed to go along with Biden on many things. But it has put its core principle as ‘free, transparent and inclusive,’ keeping a distance from the US’ ‘free and open’ strategy,” Park said, underscoring how the words in a presidential joint statement mirror the intentions of the participating governments.
Taking US’ side against China?
Concerns are looming that Korea’s shift in approach would elicit reactions from China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also warned South Korea against its “decoupling” and possibly “cutting off (supply) chains” with China.
But experts here said the neighboring country would not be able to take unfavorable actions against Korea for now, as China also has its own difficulties to handle, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
While South Korea is a member to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — a China-led economic partnership — it would also not have much impact in Korea’s foreign policy, as many countries are members, including Japan, Chung of Sejong Institute said.
In addition, the grouping has not been so active since it was first launched in November 2020, Chung added.
Park of Ewha University also said there are some eight to 10 countries joining IPEF, and it would be “irrational” for China to impose any de facto sanctions solely against South Korea.
After the summit on Saturday, a National Security Adviser explained under a condition of anonymity that South Korea’s membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and its plan to join the IPEF do not clash in terms of national interest.
“(Korea’s participation in) the RCEP is also the country’s effort to expand and promote economic cooperation in the region, just like the IPEF and the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” the official said.
“Being a member of the RCEP does not mean that we cannot join the IPEF and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think we should refrain from thinking that China will be happy if we are in RCEP, and get cross with us if we join IPEF,” the official added.