Considering the current ambiguous geopolitical and geo-economic situation, Southeast Asia has found itself at the centre of attention in shaping post-pandemic agendas and priorities in the Asia-Pacific. 

The region’s states, including Malaysia, is no stranger to such a role especially when concerning matters of public health. Through both individual capacities and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Southeast Asian states have participated through regional commitments to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and similar crisis experiences with SARS and MERS. 

Southeast Asia has reached out to dialogue partners, as dialogue partners in turn sought to assist and increase bilateral or regional ties to best prepare themselves against any further disruptions.

South Korea’s engagements with Southeast Asia through their New Southern Policy (NSP) has been a notable example of such efforts. The policy itself emphasises key focus areas through its three “P’s” “People”, “Prosperity” and “Peace”. The three-year-old policy aims to pave the way for new opportunities of collaboration with the region and avoiding crippling dependency by diversifying their pool of partners. A fluid and developing policy, its process complements ASEAN’s own areas of focus, channelled through their Political-Security Community, Economic Community and Socio-Cultural Community. Amid the pandemic, both financial and capacity-based assistance has been apparent through the ASEAN-Korea Cooperation Fund (AKCF) and the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.

Despite this reinvigorated attention, interest in the NSP highlighted issues that need to be addressed. Official statements and coverage of high-profile visits should not overshadow the resolve to improve upon the preoccupation with economic-focused engagements and the overstated potential of ASEAN as a buffer against sources of instability that come from Northeast Asia. At the same time, for Southeast Asia and ASEAN to play a substantive role requires addressing uncomfortable issues faced within the members before progress can be made for ASEAN to adapt to new realities and meet expectations and goals planned by themselves and those stated in the NSP. 

The goals should reflect the original intentions of the policy, and South Korea needs to reaffirm its position and commitment as a reliable partner of Southeast Asia. Competing influences emerging from Japan’s “pivot” to Southeast Asia, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in addition to the unforeseen but acute disruptions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, such impetus for cooperation is more pressing. 

An example of the greater discussion into the dynamics and dimensions of the NSP was made through Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia’s recent publication “The New Southern Policy: Catalyst for Deepening ASEAN-ROK Cooperation.” Its launch during the event entitled “The New Southern Policy and ASEAN-ROK Relations: Enhancing Connectivity, Building Resilience”, supported by the Korea Foundation demonstrated one of the many people-to-people engagements in furthering the discussion of the subject matter on the range of issues and the best ways forward in implementing them. 

Stemming from the idea to contribute to an unfolding discourse of the NSP amid shifting geopolitical dynamics, the publication sought to unite conversations of larger strategic context to specific, pragmatic ways of cooperation between ASEAN and Korea.

The publication’s subject matters also draw attention to the realities and possible trajectories of ASEAN-ROK relations and the NSP’s future. It emphasises how it needs to pave the steps forward from beyond just making clear displays of rhetorical commitment. There are also evaluations of current areas of ASEAN-ROK collaborations including maritime cooperation and reflections of South Korea’s engagement in the contested Mekong region. The high demand for maritime infrastructure and connectivity are areas for fruitful, enhanced cooperation. Moving the bar forward for ASEAN from becoming mere theatre for peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula, the publication also explored opportunities and challenges in engaging with North Korea. The observations included ASEAN’s need to embrace its role as a stakeholder, be consistent in its policies and work with more actors including non-state actors, civil society organisations as catalysts.

The reality of the situation of the region and beyond shows the intricacies and difficulties that goes into producing fruitful means of engagement. The recent events have demonstrated the growing interest towards reinvigorated relations with South Korea, drawing people from diverse backgrounds as government officials, academics, think tank analysts, and representatives from NGOs for exchanges to navigate uncertain challenges lying ahead.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 15 October 2020.

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