Opinion: Strategic Convergence and Divergence of ASEAN and South Korea

Leaders of ASEAN and Republic of Korea during the 23rd ASEAN-ROK Summit as part of the 40th and 41st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits in Phnom Penh on November 12, 2022. Photo: AKP

The cooperation between ASEAN and the Republic of Korea (ROK) emerged in the late 1980s as a Sectorial Dialogue Partner. With trade and people-to-people cooperation increasing yearly, the previous Administration under former President Moon Jae-in bolstered the relations between the two regions to the same level as the ROK's major allies.

However, under President Yoon Suk-yeol's administration, it is vital to reflect on the divergence and convergence between the ROK and ASEAN for the help of future strategic cooperation.

The area where both ASEAN and South Korea converged are enormous and should be further encouraged. Both actors have the ambition for geopolitical cooperation between the middle powers to offset the current competition and rivalry between the major powers. ASEAN and ROK are extending their cooperation worldwide.

Some examples are the ASEAN-UK Dialogue Partnership: the plan of action from 2022 to 2026, and the strengthening of the ROK ties with Canada and the UK, just to name a few.

Moreover, both ASEAN and ROK need strategic support from their cooperative partners in the international community as much as they can to deal with the current issues they have on their hands, such as the issue in Myanmar and the increasing aggression of North Korea.

On the economic front, both ASEAN and the ROK are looking outward from their perspective region to increase economic partnerships and – most importantly – to decrease their economic dependence on major economic powers such as the US and China.

Furthermore, the impact of the Ukraine – Russia conflict has brought hurdles to the global economy. Nations in the Indo-Pacific are feeling the effects of the deceleration to 4.2 per cent in 2022, while ASEAN's inflation rate has increased by 3.8% in the recent month, and South Korea's inflation rate has jumped over 5% in 2022. During the AESAN Economic Minister Meeting, the ASEAN Chair urged all members to open up their economies and expand their cooperation with sustainable economic growth.

This aligned with the recent South Korea Emergency Economic Meeting held on 27 October which planned to battle the economic hardship in the post-COVID world. ASEAN and South Korea have a common urgent economic task – to fight and bring down the rising inflation.

However, on the diverging front, both ASEAN and ROK have their definition of security threats. For instance, in the current setting, ASEAN is occupied and hustling to resolve the issue in Myanmar and the conflict in the South China Sea.

At the same time, South Korea is focused on the rising aggression of North Korea and North Korea's growth of rapid missile tests in recent months. As a result, the differences in threat perception will blur the high-security cooperation between ASEAN and the ROK.

ASEAN has pledged its neutrality on issues such as Ukraine – Russian conflict, the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, and even the case on the Korean peninsula while upholding its strong position against the aggressor in the conflict mentioned. However, the ROK under the Yoon administration, with its security at the current central point, has been moving closer to the US for its security umbrella. This can be seen during the US-ROK Summit in May 2022 and the recent visit by the USS Ronald Reagan in September.

Therefore, the different geostrategic standpoints between ASEAN and ROK could spell uncertainty in cooperation between the two actors.

Although ASEAN and ROK’s relations could be better, understanding the alignment and dissimilarity between ASEAN and the ROK will benefit scholars and policymakers to further shape policies and ways forward for the good of the two middle powers in the near future.

Bunly Ek is a research fellow, at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), in Cambodia and one of the 2022 Global Korea Scholarship (GKS) Master's Degree scholars in International Cooperation at Yonsei University, South Korea. The views expressed in the above article are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial direction of Cambodianess.

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