Korea needs a flexible, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific vision

By Kyungjin Song

When the Trump administration revived its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and reengaged with the Quad in 2017, the Korean government and the intellectual community paid little attention to it.

The Korean government had little intention to become involved in what was considered a US-led, anti-China strategy at the expense of enormous economic gains from its trade with China, which accounts for a quarter of its total exports.

Upon the election of President Biden, most nations in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world had a sigh of relief, hoping for a swift return to normalcy and a departure from Trump’s transaction-based diplomacy. Biden made it clear that while pursuing value-based diplomacy, his administration would succeed Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy in viewing China as a revisionist power; under his leadership, the US would deal with China from a position of strength in cooperation with allies and partners.

With the first-ever Quad Leaders Meeting taking place on 12 March this year, there were intensifying calls in Seoul for Korea to engage in a policy dialogue about its stance on the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. However, these calls were often unheard or ignored until the Korea-US 2+2 Meeting was held, which addressed the need for closer Korea-US collaboration to maintain peace, stability and respect for international law, as well as of strengthening the Korea-US alliance and US-Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation.

As the Indo-Pacific region increasingly becomes the epicentre of global geopolitics, geoeconomics and geostrategy, Korea is feeling at a loss by the rapid changes in US-China relations and the regional dynamics which will not allow it to maintain “strategic ambiguity.” That said, there are compelling reasons why Korea should develop its own flexible, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific vision and join the Quad in a more proactive manner.

Such a vision will enhance Korea’s strategic weight, bolstering its strategic autonomy and augmenting its leverage in US-China competition and cooperation. This, in turn, will help to prevent Korea from being swung from one end to the other by any great power. On the global stage, Korea will be able to meet the expectations of the international community by contributing more to the shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in tandem with its economic weight. This would provide Korea with a seat at the table on important regional issues, especially in the forthcoming Quad’s vaccine expert working group, critical and emerging technology working group, and climate working group.

Presently, however, anything perceived as being “anti-China” may find a hard time persuading the current Korean government to accept it. Working towards helping reluctant countries like Korea to be more proactive on the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, without compromising core national interests, will ensure that the Indo-Pacific is a truly free, open and inclusive initiative for regional and global stability.

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