While the G-20 Summit and U.S. President Joe Biden’s meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping may have taken the spotlight from this season of Asian summitry, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has also been actively holding meetings with regional leaders to reinforce his foreign policy agenda. Yoon’s notable meetings on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Cambodia included a trilateral meeting with Biden and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio of Japan, and separate bilateral summits with Biden and Kishida, respectively. Yoon also met Xi on the sidelines of the G-20 in Bali, Indonesia.
Taken together, the meetings provide deeper insight into the Yoon government’s foreign policy approach as both a “global pivotal state” and an emerging Indo-Pacific player.
Crafting South Korean Foreign Policy
Even prior to his inauguration, Yoon had touted a robust South Korean foreign policy closely aligned to the United States and focused more broadly on the Indo-Pacific region. This diplomatic approach was meant to contrast with his predecessor’s alleged narrower focus on inter-Korea relations and a preference for “strategic ambiguity” between Beijing and Washington. The Yoon government has boosted ties with the United States, worked to improve relations with Japan, reached out to coordinate economic and security policies with the European Union and NATO, and promoted investment financing and development in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and beyond.
However, Yoon’s foreign policy hasn’t been all smooth sailing. North Korea’s escalating missile and nuclear threats may rein in Yoon’s more global ambitions. Questions linger as to whether South Korea can really afford to decouple from China, with some critics claiming that Yoon’s policy fundamentally looks no different from that of the previous Moon Jae-in government.
Yoon’s last major diplomatic outing to the United Nations in September resulted in harsh domestic criticism, including calls for the resignation of South Korea’s foreign minister. Hastily planned meetings with Kishida and Biden fell flat, leaving Yoon looking desperate and marginalized. To make matters worse, Yoon was caught on a hot mic appearing to curse the U.S. Congress.
Yoon’s Sideline Summit Diplomacy
The Yoon government appears to have re-upped its game plan coming into the ASEAN and G-20 summits, recovering from its earlier diplomatic fumbles in London and New York. In particular, the series of bilateral and multilateral summit meetings in Southeast Asia enabled the Yoon government to achieve several goals.
First, meetings with ASEAN, the United States, Japan, and other regional allies and partners offered the Yoon government an opportunity to preview its soon to be released Indo-Pacific strategy. In addition to reaffirming ASEAN centrality, Yoon addressed the underlying principles of “freedom, peace, and prosperity” behind his government’s Indo-Pacific strategy as well as the increasing importance of enhancing economic security.
Second, the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral meeting resulted in the first comprehensive joint statement – dubbed the “Phnom Penh Statement” – by the three leaders. Notably, the leaders framed the statement as a “trilateral partnership for the Indo-Pacific,” and not simply a trilateral covering the Korean Peninsula or Northeast Asia. Beyond North Korea, the Phnom Penh statement condemns Russian nuclear threats, offers solidarity with Ukraine, calls for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, pledges close solidarity with ASEAN, and reaffirms commitments to the Pacific Island countries. The statement also implicitly draws connections to the Quad (which includes Japan and the U.S., but not South Korea) by addressing issues such as climate change, technology, and pandemic awareness and prevention, which form the basis of Quad working groups.
Third, in addition to the trilateral meeting, the Yoon-Kishida bilateral meeting provided greater recognition for South Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific. To date, Japan has largely excluded South Korea from its Indo-Pacific strategy. However, the two leaders welcomed each other’s Indo-Pacific strategies during their meeting. Kishida revealed to Yoon that Japan expects to release a revised “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” next spring, suggesting that Tokyo will incorporate South Korea into its own Indo-Pacific framework. More importantly, Tokyo’s acceptance of Seoul as an Indo-Pacific player will help boost recognition for South Korea as an important regional security partner, and not just an economic partner in Asia.
Fourth, in contrast to Yoon’s brief and awkward encounter with Biden at the United Nations in September, the Yoon-Biden bilateral meeting in Cambodia enabled the South Korean president to raise two issues of importance with his counterpart: extended deterrence and the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act. Yoon urged Biden to work toward building a “stronger and more effective extended deterrence regime” and to “dramatically strengthen extended deterrence … in line with North Korea’s advanced nuclear capabilities.” He also reiterated the need for ongoing discussion with Biden regarding the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, which currently excludes of tax credits for South Korean electric vehicle manufacturers such as Hyundai, despite major South Korean investments in the United States. Although the U.S.-South Korea alliance stands on solid footing, these two issues have lately bred uncertainty if not anxiety among the policy and business community regarding the Biden administration’s commitment to support allies and partners.
Fifth, the Yoon-Xi summit held on the sidelines of the G-20 in Bali, Indonesia offered a first in-person meeting between the two leaders. Although the meeting did not produce any substantive breakthroughs, Yoon conveyed his hope that China would play a “more active and constructive” role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Xi also offered his support for the Yoon government’s “audacious initiative” including significant economic aid and investment for North Korea should Pyongyang be responsive.
Hitting Its Diplomatic Stride in the Indo-Pacific
The Yoon administration seems to have hit its diplomatic stride at the ASEAN and G-20 Summits, avoiding the unforced errors and gaffes it suffered from during its foreign travel two months earlier. For South Korea, the series of sideline meetings may prove to be more consequential than the larger summit gatherings, as the Yoon government prepares to unveil its Indo-Pacific strategy. Moreover, the summit meetings reflect South Korea’s ambitious goal of becoming a global pivotal state. How successfully South Korea can navigate its complex regional security, diplomatic, and economic environment will depend in part in sustaining a deft and robust diplomatic effort.