Better Late Than Never: South Korea and New Zealand in the South Pacific

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Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

Better Late Than Never: South Korea and New Zealand in the South Pacific

Seoul and Wellington were late to the Indo-Pacific party, but now have a chance to demonstrate middle power agency. 

Better Late Than Never: South Korea and New Zealand in the South Pacific
Credit: Depositphotos

In the dynamic geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific region, which is embedded within the strategic competition between the United States and China, the role of middle powers has emerged as a pivotal factor shaping the balance of power and influencing regional dynamics. Positioned between major global players and smaller nations, middle powers play a nuanced and strategic role by leveraging their diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities to promote stability, foster cooperation, and advance their own national interests.

As the Indo-Pacific witnesses evolving alliances, economic interdependence, and security challenges, two such middle powers – South Korea and New Zealand – find themselves at the crossroads of shaping the region’s future trajectory. Both countries need to step up to the plate to contribute significantly to the maintenance of peace and the pursuit of shared prosperity.

South Korea and New Zealand are two important players in the region that have been relatively late to the party. South Korea only released its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific” document in December 2022 and New Zealand released its “Navigating a shifting world” official document (something similar to, though not quite the same as, a dedicated strategy) in July of this year.

Japan (which originally introduced the concept of free and open Indo-Pacific), Australia, and India were quicker to have official Indo-Pacific strategies in place. In South Korea and New Zealand, the domestic political rhetoric and narrative have been slow to shift, and only a change in the top leadership – President Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins in New Zealand – led to an urgency to draw up an official document. But as the saying goes, “Better late than never.”

The unsettled dynamics of the China-U.S. strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific have served as a catalyst for more middle powers to take more ownership of the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. Both South Korea and New Zealand, two trade-dependent countries, have benefited tremendously from the post-war rules-based international order and recognize that a change to this order will negatively affect their respective national interests. Given the worrisome state of U.S. domestic politics – now and into the near-term future – and the perception that U.S. commitment to the region is no longer as rock-solid and reliable as in decades past, the official strategic documents of South Korea and New Zealand clearly recognize that they have to carry their weight in regional affairs.

Leveraging its economic prowess, technological advancements, and strategic geographical location, South Korea has emerged as a crucial player that bridges the gap between major powers and smaller nations. As a nation with a thriving export-driven economy and a global technological footprint, South Korea actively engages in regional economic integration and innovation networks, contributing to the region’s growth and stability.

With an eye on regional security, South Korea’s strategic partnerships and alliances have elevated its influence in the Indo-Pacific. Seoul’s multifaceted Indo-Pacific strategy encompasses a range of elements – such as non-proliferation, counterterrorism, tailored developmental cooperation, climate change, comprehensive security, economic security, and the promotion of rule of law – that are aimed at bolstering its presence and influence in the region.

Despite its smaller size, New Zealand’s emphasis on democratic values, human rights, and environmental stewardship resonates with the evolving priorities of the Indo-Pacific. As a nation with a strong history of engagement in multilateral organizations, New Zealand actively contributes to the region’s discussions on climate change, maritime security, and economic cooperation. Its diplomatic approach, often marked by a willingness to mediate and facilitate dialogue, positions New Zealand as a trusted interlocutor among larger powers and smaller nations, fostering an environment of cooperation and shared responsibility.

New Zealand’s role in the Indo-Pacific extends beyond traditional security concerns to encompass sustainable development and cultural exchanges. With a focus on Pacific Island nations, New Zealand plays a significant role in promoting regional resilience against environmental challenges and socioeconomic disparities. Through aid programs, development initiatives, and capacity-building efforts, New Zealand reinforces its commitment to equitable growth and stability in the region.

Despite the geographic distance, the difference in economic size and capabilities, South Korea and New Zealand are natural partners in promoting a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific, especially in the South Pacific. The South Pacific has emerged as the new frontier for major power competition. The United States and China have been trying to one-up each other in providing development aid and investment and are keen to sell themselves as the best partner of the Pacific Island countries (PICs). Yet, what undergirds the actions of these two superpowers are primarily defense and security concerns. As a consequence the PICs are caught in a tug-of-war that could destabilize their domestic politics. Middle powers like South Korea and New Zealand can team up to provide options to the smaller states in the region seeking an alternative from the two big powers.

It is in the South Pacific region where New Zealand and South Korea can most meaningfully collaborate and make an impact. The convergence of the Indo-Pacific strategies of South Korea and New Zealand is substantial, and both countries have a shared commitment to regional cooperation, stability, and sustainable development. Both nations recognize the importance of economic engagement and trade ties within the region. South Korea’s focus on economic partnerships and technological collaboration resonates with New Zealand’s emphasis on economic growth, resilience, and development cooperation, particularly in the Pacific.

A pronounced area of convergence lies in their shared commitment to climate change mitigation and environmental sustainability. Central to New Zealand’s strategy is its dedication to addressing climate change and promoting sustainability in the Indo-Pacific. Its proactive stance on climate action and environmental protection resonates strongly, especially considering the vulnerability of Pacific Island nations. This commitment is further bolstered by New Zealand’s soft power and cultural diplomacy efforts, which foster connections through cultural exchanges and people-to-people interactions, solidifying its reputation as a constructive and engaged participant in the dynamic Indo-Pacific region.

New Zealand’s proactive stance on climate action complements South Korea’s engagement in environmental protection and clean energy initiatives. Both nations recognize the vulnerability of Pacific Island nations to climate impacts and aspire to address these challenges collaboratively. Their efforts in this domain reflect their joint aspiration to foster resilience, promote green growth, and address global environmental concerns in the Indo-Pacific region.

The convergence of strategies and interests between South Korea and New Zealand signifies a significant development in the role of middle powers within the Indo-Pacific region. First, this convergence highlights the capacity of middle powers to form strategic partnerships that transcend geographical distance and cultural differences. South Korea’s technological advancements and economic strength complement New Zealand’s focus on sustainability and climate action, allowing the two nations to pool their resources and expertise for maximum impact. Second, the cooperation between South Korea and New Zealand showcases the role of middle powers as diplomatic mediators and problem-solvers. And lastly, middle powers provide an option to the small states in the region caught between the geopolitical and geoeconomic tension resulting from the intensification of the China-U.S. strategic competition.