This post was coauthored with Sungtae (Jacky) Park, research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
South Korea has become a nation with a global presence, but Seoul has yet to exercise its influence in Southeast Asia. In a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) discussion paper, Expanding South Korea’s Security Role in the Asia-Pacific Region, Patrick M. Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security, and Seongwon Lee, deputy director for the international cooperation division of the unification policy office at the Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea, argue that South Korea should play a larger role in the region, particularly with regard to dealing with a rising China and coping with rising maritime tensions.
While Pyongyang remains Seoul’s most urgent security priority, South Korea is also a major beneficiary of the current liberal international order and has an interest in helping to maintaining the order. Moreover, South Korea, as a rising middle power, has the capacity to play a larger role in the wider Asia-Pacific region. For example, South Korea has inked thirty-nine bilateral security agreements, fourteen of those with Asia-Pacific countries, over the past decade, and has emerged as a major arms exporter, particularly in Southeast Asia. Park Geun-hye has held twenty bilateral summits with heads of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations during the first three years of her presidency.
South Korea is also operating an increasingly capable navy. In February 2016, the South Korean navy opened a naval base at Jeju Island. The base hosts ROKN Maritime Task Flotilla 7, the first ROK flotilla designed for expeditionary operations. Although dwarfed by those of its strong neighbors, China and Japan, South Korea’s navy ranks eighth-largest in the world. South Korea also holds military exercises regularly with ASEAN members.
Cronin and Lee argue that South Korea could do the following to help bolster the liberal international order in the wider Asia-Pacific region:
- Support arbitration and other means of peaceful dispute resolution. Seoul needs to support attempts by claimants in the South China Sea to settle disputes through mechanisms such as those agreed to within the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
- Embrace the rule of law and regional norm-building. South Korea should find more opportunities to support UNCLOS and regional norms, including advocating for a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea and including coast guard and law enforcement activities as part of the voluntary regional Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).
- Contribute to maritime transparency. South Korea has the public and private sector personnel and technical capacity to contribute to a wider regional maritime common operating architecture that could help deal with a wide range of contingencies from disasters to maritime coercion.
- Join regional patrols that occasionally navigate through the South China Sea. South Korea, along with Australia, India, and Japan, should selectively join U.S. freedom of navigation operations to remind all nations that the South China Sea is a vital international waterway on which all major trading countries depend.
- Conduct more frequent multilateral maritime exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Seoul’s blue-water capabilities mean that it is better able to regularly participate in numerous and more sophisticated multilateral exercises throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
- Build partner capacity. Professionalism across South Korean armed forces, law enforcement, and coast guard suggests that South Korea is well poised to help build the capacity of partner nations, especially South China Sea littoral countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
- Ensure maritime tensions in Asia remain high on regional and global diplomatic agendas. As both a Northeast Asian and middle power, South Korea has a responsibility to ensure that maritime disputes are raised and kept high on the agendas of major forums, both ASEAN-centered institutions, such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, and the United Nations and other international institutions.
The previous administration led by Barack Obama actively supported intra-Asian security networking and cooperation. The Donald Trump administration should continue its predecessor’s efforts and be even more receptive to its Asian allies playing a more active role in wider regional security concerns. Aligning U.S.-ROK efforts on security cooperation with ASEAN, as well as coordinating activities with individual Southeast Asian nations, should become more prominent parts of a stable and prosperous regional landscape.
This Asia Unbound preview was adapted from the CFR discussion paper, Expanding South Korea’s Security Role in the Asia-Pacific Region.