An over-baked soufflé? South Korea's Indo-Pacific Strategy
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific (IndoPac) Strategy will be released soon.
We already know the basics. On 11 November 2022 at the 23rd ASEAN-Republic of Korea (ROK) Summit in Phnom Penh, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol outlined the administration’s IndoPac strategy. There’s been a few good reviews. In an early piece, Song Kyung-jin at the Institute for Global Economics (IGE) looked at expectations for the strategy. Clint Work at the Korea Economic Institute did a great piece looking at the underlying tensions. More recently, Wongi Choe at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) looked at strategic implications from a government perspective. He noted the strategy’s central features:
Comprehensiveness. An expansion from an overt focus on the economic to include the strategic.
Values-based. An increased focus on the rules based international order, as well as universal human rights, freedom, and democracy.
Prioritization of ASEAN. A further extension of Seoul’s focus on ASEAN.
Choe also highlighted how these features will impact South Korea’s foreign policy and the challenges ahead, noting that “China is highly likely to perceive Seoul’s new initiative as a strategic tilt towards Washington”; Seoul’s currently far behind on regional issues; and working with ASEAN on “value-laden diplomacy” and China/U.S. and issues will not be easy.
I’m going to be a tad more critical because (1) I don’t work for the government, and (2) as a result of covid measures, the government hasn’t thrown any of those cheap wine and pizza dinners for foreign academics where they explain policy and ask you not to be too critical (you know what I mean Seoulites). So, here goes…
South Korea’s IndoPac Strategy is an overheated soufflé. It looks great from a distance, but when you open the door to look closer, it collapses in a sugary mess!
For consistency, I’ll continue the soufflé analogy and look at the ingredients, preparation and presentation.
Ingredients. There’s far too much rhetoric. Strategic communication in foreign policy should be broader, conceptual, sometimes even abstract, focusing on the long-term directions of foreign policy. But at the same time, it needs to lay out paths so that the conceptual can be operationalized. This is particularly true when you have a single, five-year presidential term limit. However, the information flow for South Korea’s IndoPac Strategy is more like spruiking at a car dealership. It’s all dazzle and no actual detail. Certainly, it’s clear that the rule of law is going to be an important component of the strategy — but there’s absolutely no mention of how (or if) this changes South Korea’s position on the South China Sea, Myanmar, Hong Kong or multiple other rule of law issues in the region. This makes the strategy appear to be all rhetoric — no action.
Preparation. The preparation for the strategy has been woefully inadequate. There was very little public consultation. More alarmingly, the strategy appears to be a product not of informed consideration by policy professionals, but rather advisors (often academics) with grand visions and very little policy experience. The result is ideas with no sense of implementation — again rhetoric over action. When the practitioners put academic ideas in place, they understandably fit it into pre-existing molds. This means greater regional integration will be construed as ASEAN centrality — nothing more. Word on the street — and I mean the street, cos that’s where I heard it (from those with whom MOFA consulted) is that much of the consultation focused more on avoiding a negative Chinese reaction than addressing concerns regarding China’s behavior. To them, this came as somewhat of a surprise.
Presentation. Finally, the presentation has been careful — even timid. The presidential speech was made prior to the physical release of the strategy to allow the gauging of regional (read China) reactions, and delivered at ASEAN to reflect and emphasize the non-alignment and neutrality. The actual strategy was conveniently scheduled for “the end of the year” when most partner state (read U.S.) bureaucracies and media are preoccupied by the holiday period shutdown, thus dulling any immediate criticisms. While this approach may not have been planned, its timidity is still there for all to see (read China and U.S.).
The soufflé analogy for South Korea’s foreign policy works with just about every new administration. Think about it, nearly every foreign policy strategy looks great in the first and second year of an administration until it starts to collapse: Green Growth, North Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), and the New Southern Policy. They’re all just rhetorical incarnations of a much broader and steadier long-term trend (which I’ll discuss in a future piece). The IndoPac Strategy will be no different.
My opinions are formed from interacting with those at the coalface. Those that maneuver and shuffle to get the support of presidential advisors and perhaps lead components of a grand presidential foreign policy strategy. Then as it becomes steadily clearer that being involved will leave a stain that will be seen by the next presidential administration, they maneuver and shuffle just as fast to get out. That’s the point in time when the soufflé really collapses.
So, get ready for a belly full of rhetoric and a gamut of domestic and foreign opinion pieces supporting it. The IndoPac Strategy will dazzle everyone for two years or so, and then it will quietly deflate until it collapses, as occurs with all the other grand presidential foreign policy strategies. The long-term trend of fence-sitting will continue.
Media: Wikimedia Commons
South Korea, Indo-Pacific Strategy, Security, Strategic, Foreign Policy