Flashpoints as opportunities: The Korean Peninsula and South China Sea as opportunities to deepen ASEAN-ROK strategic relations. 

Teo Ang Guan

Nanyang Technological University

As the Sino-US strategic competition continues to simmer, the Indo-Pacific region has become the main geopolitical arena for the two to jostle for power and influence. States within the region now fear being reduced to being mere pawns in their contest for power. Necessity is the mother of invention. Of late, regional entities like ASEAN and the Republic of Korea (ROK) have intensified efforts to insert their voices within the existing discourse to secure their place at the table. Thus far, the rhetoric coming out of both ASEAN and Korea suggest some acknowledgment of the precarious situation they are in while recognising that their respective visions of the emerging regional architecture are similar. However, concrete policy measures to promote greater synergy between the two have rooms for improvement. This paper makes the case for fostering stronger strategic ties between ASEAN and Korea. The logic it presents is simple – strategic cooperation between the great powers makes ASEAN and Korea more relevant in the emerging regional security landscape. This gives them currency to expand their manoeuvring space and strengthen their voices vis-à-vis the larger powers. Two areas of interest, namely, the Korean Peninsula and South China Sea (SCS) are fertile grounds to explore cooperation. The rationale for this choice is because the two issues lie on the top of Korea and ASEAN respective agendas. Considering the feasibility and the benefits of any prospective policies, this paper argues for an expansion in efforts to engage North Korea via ASEAN-led mechanisms while arguing for an expansion in cooperation amongst the defence industries in response to ASEAN’s South China Sea dispute.

By the end of the paper, it will be clear that there is a need to adopt a cautiously optimistic view when looking at the future of ASEAN and Korea within the emerging Indo-Pacific. Obstacles abound, but there remains much room for optimism. What ASEAN and Korea need to do before the door shuts before them is to strive to remain relevant to the emerging political landscape. To this end, this paper has presented policy recommendations catered to helping both parties build relevance in the two respective situations. As explained, they are feasible and beneficial to both ASEAN and Korea. The time is now for both ASEAN and Korea to stand together to weather the brewing storm in the emerging Indo-Pacific.

국문 요약

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미중간의 전략적 경쟁이 심화됨에 따라 인도-태평양 지역은 두 강대국이 영향력을 놓고 다투는 지정학적 주전장이 되었다. 이에 따라 한국과 아세안을 비롯한 역내 국가들은 강대국 경쟁의 졸(卒)로 전락하는 것을 경계하고, 이를 탈피하고자 스스로의 입지를 공고히 하기 위해 노력을 기하고 있다. 지금까지의 외교 수사에 비춰볼 때, 현 상황과 역내 지정학적 구조에 대한 한국과 아세안의 시각에는 유사함이 보인다. 그럼에도 불구하고 아직까지 한-아세안 협력의 시너지를 불러일으킬 구체적인 정책방안이 부족한 것이 현실이다. 이 에세이는 한국과 아세안이 강대국에 대한 레버리지를 확대하기 위해 상호간의 전략적 협력을 강화할 것을 제시한다. 특히, 한반도와 남중국해라는 각자의 요충지이자 안보 우선순위에서의 협력을 강화하는 것을 주장한다. 구체적으로 아세안 주도의 협력체제에 북한을 보다 개입시켜 국제사회와의 대화를 통한 한반도 안정화를 꾀하는 방안과, 한-아세안 간의 방산협력 확대를 기반으로 한 남중국해 지역의 안정화를 제안한다.