ASEAN and South Korea should strive towards fostering cooperation in the strategic aspect of the New Southern Policy. To reach that objective, however, ASEAN needs to address some of its internal issues.


The rising authoritarianism and pressures from China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, hereafter North Korea) are among some of the growing challenges that have precipitated the Republic of Korea (ROK, hereafter South Korea) to expand its geopolitical space by diversifying its outreach to Southeast Asia. 

However, South Korea has to realise that there are other countries with similar interests to expand their influence in Southeast Asia, such as Japan, India, the European Union (EU) and Australia. The interest in Southeast Asia is indicative of ongoing geopolitical developments whereby the region will become a significant factor to any countries’ post-pandemic strategy in the Asia Pacific. 

South Korea has attempted to make inroads through the New Southern Policy (NSP). The high-profile visits led by President Moon Jae-in publicised and emphasised Seoul’s intention to cultivate relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India as key partners in the southern hemisphere, similar to its Chinese and Japanese counterparts. 

Although the pandemic has changed the patterns of physical collaboration between ASEAN and South Korea, it has not discouraged its progress, such as people-to-people engagements, nor halted the flow of goods and services. 

For example, President Moon emphasised the importance of support for the region’s pandemic response and medical needs at the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit via video conference in April 2020. Additional engagements between the two include the “Enhancing the Detection Capacity for COVID-19 in ASEAN Countries” project. This joint endeavour, worth US$5 million, includes the provision of test kits, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) for ASEAN Member States (AMS). 

While health diplomacy will be given the most attention, it is likely that there will be further post-pandemic recovery collaboration, including mid- and long-term strategies that will be mutually beneficial for the parties involved. 

In a post-pandemic environment, the goals and methods to achieve the original objectives of the NSP require recalibration and systematisation before plotting the ways forward. These will include revisions of priorities and the instruments of engagement, either bilaterally or multilaterally. 

The following are some of the persisting and upcoming issues that need to be addressed for a more constructive progress of ASEAN-ROK relations. 

Firstly, the preference for unilateral or bilateral efforts during this pandemic raises questions over the utility of current ASEAN mechanisms and its cohesiveness. These can also pose long-term implications in the organisation’s ability to mobilise proactive measures when faced with any disruptive events. 

Combined with the lukewarm reception towards international organisations and multilateralism as a whole during the pandemic, it becomes more trying to convince members to commit to ASEAN’s cause. 

Secondly, maintaining ASEAN’s centrality would be challenging if the organisation’s leadership dilemma is not resolved. In the past, there were expectations for countries led by strong leaders such as Indonesia to take the reins. But does the organisation actually require a single country to take the lead? 

The organisation’s rotating chairmanship format has been beneficial thus far. However, it seems that ASEAN’s political thrust as a moderating force in the region requires a lot more than just passing the group’s stewardship from one member to another. 

Thirdly, ASEAN centrality is also challenged by certain AMS’ domestic interests, which could be in opposition to regional aspirations. Some leaders might be preoccupied with the preservation of their power. Besides, there is a plethora of issues that each country is prioritising over regional interests. The pandemic management is just one example, in addition to economic development and the people’s welfare, among others. 

Indeed, there remains a lack of closer consultation with ASEAN on such critical issues as interstate tensions. The continued prioritisation of national sovereignty certainly hinders efforts to establish an ASEAN community. These are some of the common issues that each AMS are very protective about, which can come at the cost of sidelining ASEAN’s agenda. Should there be no resolution in finding the balance between domestic and regional interests, ASEAN’s position in the bigger geopolitical scheme would remain hampered. 

For ASEAN to achieve more as a premier regional organisation, there is a need then to address any lingering tensions amongst AMS, preferences towards sovereignty, the penchant for bilateral over multilateral solutions and opaque neutrality. 

ASEAN needs to overcome its internal challenges by strengthening intra-ASEAN solidarity before it can present itself as a desirable and credible partner to South Korea. Yet, despite its limitations, it is important to remember that ASEAN’s members and mechanisms have demonstrated the platform’s potential in mitigating the acute effects of geopolitical rivalry on both its member states and partners. 

Additionally, there is a need to strengthen multilateralism in Southeast Asia to alleviate tensions and restore confidence in regional mechanisms and the order it creates. One of the intentions of the NSP includes leveraging towards building solidarity amongst middle powers to cope with increasing Sino-American geopolitical competition. 

Currently, there is a predominance in economic-centric initiatives compared to its strategic counterparts. The lack of progress in the proposal for an annual ASEAN-ROK Defence Ministers’ Meeting, despite being one of the core 16 policy tasks of the NSP, further reflects the limited attention given. Nevertheless, it should be noted that ASEAN’s strategic engagements with a country closely associated with a potential flashpoint do need to proceed with caution. 

A notable positive stride is South Korea’s arms exports into Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all known claimant states in the disputed South China Sea. While South Korea has been largely driven by profit-driven calculations and refrained from making statements surrounding the matter, it may be perceived as bolstering claimant and non-claimant states’ capabilities to safeguard their respective claims. To alleviate such concerns, maritime cooperation in other areas is also increasing. 

Another significant dimension when considering multilateral mechanisms is ASEAN’s engagements with North Korea. Indeed, ASEAN’s role in matters of the Korean Peninsula has amplified since the Singapore summit in 2018 and Hanoi summit in 2019, but the extent of its role to produce tangible outcomes cannot be overestimated. 

While the ASEAN-ROK Joint Vision Statement of the Commemorative Summit intertwines peace and stability in Southeast and Northeast Asia, the heavy focus on the Korean Peninsula’s security can risk undercutting the whole purpose of the NSP. It is important to emphasise that ASEAN, in spite of its peace-oriented values and mechanisms as constructive pathways for North Korea, needs to be further committed to its role as a stakeholder in the interconnected subregions. 

Clear priorities and frameworks need to be implemented for the strategic planning and execution of the NSP, including what the policy does and what is needed from the governments of all states involved. However, this should not just be a rebranding of existing programmes to later be subsumed under the NSP to suit short-term needs. 

The shifting geopolitical dynamics have intensified the urgency for the NSP to produce tangible results. Indeed, the NSP presents new opportunities for South Korea to engage with Southeast Asia and avoid crippling dependency on traditional partners. Yet, the NSP should not be obfuscated by old issues, such as the preoccupation with economic cooperation and the overstated potential of ASEAN as a mediating buffer against the tension between the two Koreas. 

At the same time, it is also essential for ASEAN to address its internal issues. This should be done before working on overcoming its struggle to adapt to new realities, and meet the expectations and goals planned by AMS as well as those stated in the NSP. These goals should reflect the original intentions of the policy and South Korea needs to reaffirm its position as well as commitment as a reliable partner to Southeast Asia.

Izzah Khairina Ibrahim is Researcher in Foreign Policy and Security Studies (FPSS), ISIS Malaysia

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