A year has passed since South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy was made public. Since then, the Yoon Suk-yeol government has attempted to restore relations with several other countries. The first was the United States, followed by Japan, Australia, India, the European Union and ASEAN partners, and the Pacific Island states. Subsequently, Seoul has actively participated in various minilateral and multilateral cooperation initiatives, such as the trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan; the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), the Asia-Pacific 4, and Partners in the Blue Pacific, which were formed and activated after the Biden administration came into power in the U.S.
What is the purpose and meaning of the sequence of these actions? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the Yoon government’s foreign policy vision: South Korea as a global pivotal state. Restoring relationships, especially with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, is a crucial element in achieving that vision.
The Idea of a Global Pivotal State
The idea of a global pivotal state presented by the Yoon government includes expanding networks and cooperation with like-minded nations that share South Korea’s identity, values, and strategic interests. The goal is for South Korea to serve as a hub in sustaining the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific. In this context, a “hub” refers to South Korea’s position in the Indo-Pacific, where multilayered networks exist in various areas such as security, economics, technology, norms, and values.
Network theory suggests that these connections among countries can both constrain a nation’s actions and help them achieve their objectives. Networks among countries that share values and interests are useful in collectively achieving common goals. Network theory further states that countries positioned at the center of a network often play a crucial role in facilitating transactions that might not have occurred without their participation. This central position within the network, known as network centrality, where a country is highly interconnected with all other countries, can be a source of influence and power.
Seoul’s attempts at expanding its networks reflect the internationalist nature of the government’s foreign policy. The concept of a global pivotal state signifies South Korea’s intention to pivot toward the international community, in contrast to the previous Moon Jae-in administration.
Of course, even before Yoon’s inauguration, South Korea had been actively involved in the international arena as a middle power. However, the Moon government not only prioritized the resolution of the North Korean issue in its foreign policy but also conducted diplomacy based on the assumption that reconciliation in inter-Korean relations would lead to progress in North Korea-U.S. dialogue and ultimately denuclearization. As a result, South Korea had to maintain an accommodating attitude toward China in order to sustain momentum in dialogues with North Korea, which resulted in assessments that South Korea was hedging in the context of China-U.S. strategic competition.
Despite South Korea being a U.S. treaty ally, the Moon government did not exhibit immediate support for the Quad. South Korea also joined the process of attempting to restore multilateralism and reshape the regional architecture with a delay following U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration. In this aspect, Yoon’s government’s vision of becoming a global pivotal state demonstrates a greater commitment to engaging with regional partners and contributing to the stability of international order compared to the past.
This does not mean relegating the North Korean issue to a lower priority or abandoning dialogue with North Korea. But it does imply a change in its approach to North Korea. The shift in focus to being a global pivotal state means establishing a favorable power balance to push for North Korean denuclearization, centered on the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and actively participating in the establishment of regional security and economic architecture with like-minded countries.
In this context, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which was announced last year, can be seen as a roadmap for South Korea’s evolution into a global pivotal state. It represents a foreign policy vision that aims to contribute to maintaining the Indo-Pacific as a free, stable, and prosperous space through solidarity among like-minded countries, emphasizing multilateralism over unilateralism, and internationalism over isolationism. The Yoon administration is aware of the emergence of unilateralist nationalism and extreme populism observed in the international community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Yoon administration shares the perception that these trends further weaken the liberal order that has been sustained for over half a century.
The administration further recognizes that the competition between the United States and China is not just a bilateral rivalry, but a threat to the prosperity and stability of democratic countries due to the rise of authoritarian states and their associated networks. Seoul also understands that it is not immune to these developments. In this regard, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy aims to enhance the resilience of the regional order in the Indo-Pacific in various areas where attempts by authoritarian countries to revise the status quo are anticipated. These areas include the establishment of a rule-based Indo-Pacific regional order, the promotion of the rule of law, non-proliferation, economic security, cooperation in advanced science and technology, addressing digital disparities, climate change, and development cooperation, among others. South Korea seeks to achieve this by cooperating with like-minded countries in the region.
The Role of the South Korea-U.S.-Japan Trilateral
In this context, improving bilateral relations with the United States and Japan, as well as restoring trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan, is of great significance. Indeed, the scope of this cooperation extends beyond deterring North Korea and indicates a willingness to stabilize Northeast Asia. This trilateral cooperation projects a geopolitical impact on the East Asian security landscape, where three authoritarian regimes – China, Russia, and North Korea – are becoming more aligned.
The inclusion of language in the Joint Statement at the Camp David summit in August 2023 emphasizes the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait issue and the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on disputes in the South China Sea, which signifies South Korea’s clear stance on great power competition and strategic interest in regional affairs that goes beyond the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, closer alignment of Japan, South Korea, and the United States suggests that China’s coercion toward regional countries may not work as effectively as it did in the past, forcing Beijing to change its way of calculating the cost and benefit of conducting coercion.
South Korea’s collaboration with the United States and Japan within this trilateral platform will facilitate entry into the Indo-Pacific as well. South Korea’s nascent attempt to engage the region will be supplemented by the existing network in the region, and combined efforts with the U.S. and Japan.
Therefore, given the fluctuating regional dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, three countries need to institutionalize the trilateral. While upcoming events like the U.S. presidential election and South Korea’s general election could potentially lead to changes in the current dynamics of South Korea-U.S. relations and South Korea-Japan relations, if there is a change in ruling parties, looking at the broader international landscape, trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan can serve as a constant in a strategic environment filled with uncertainty.
Furthermore, through networking with countries that share South Korea’s strategic interests and ideological similarities, Seoul can create a strategic space where it can thrive and maintain stability. The same can be said for the United States and Japan. Considering the role of ensuring balance in the frontlines of great power competition in Northeast Asia, the trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the United States, and Japan can potentially overcome domestic political constraints and institutionalize this collaboration.
Institutionalization does not imply the formation of an “Asian NATO.” Rather, it means making regular efforts in various areas to maintain readiness through greater integration and coordination and contribute cooperatively to the broader stability of Northeast Asia by pooling capabilities. Doing so will not only counter the efforts of the authoritarian axis to drive a wedge between the United States, South Korea, and Japan but will also enhance the resilience of regional countries to respond to their coercion.