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Korea’s role in the Indo-Pacific

Nov 17,2018
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Stephan Haggard
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.

After floundering for two years, the Trump administration’s Asia strategy is coming into focus. In an editorial in The Washington Post, and an earlier policy speech focused on China, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence elaborated on his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Pence will carry this message to Asia for important summits later in the month.

What is this concept, and what does it mean for South Korea?

The geographic scope of the Indo-Pacific is somewhat vague, but it draws on Japanese ideas of a geographic “quad” of countries bounded by the United States, Australia, Japan and India.

However, the geographic concept should not be taken too literally. The U.S. grand strategy will continue to include all of the U.S. alliance relationships in Asia, including South Korea. The real innovation is the effort to extend the scope of common interests from Northeast and Southeast Asia into the Indian subcontinent.

Vice President Pence underscores three core pillars to the approach that sound quite familiar: prosperity, security and support for good government. Yet the Trump approach to each deviates from past practices, and it is worth underlining how.

With respect to prosperity, the administration responds to critics that it was walking away from economic leadership. The United States would have left the Transpacific Partnership under a Clinton administration; the question was only how quickly something would come to take its place.

Trump has well-known preference for bilateral deals. South Korea was a test case. Although the changes to the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement were relatively minor updates, it was touted at home as a major policy accomplishment and a prelude to renegotiating North American Free Trade Agreement. Now, however, more ambitious ideas are being floated, including a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan that will cover trade in goods and maybe more.

The administration also promises to spur more investment in infrastructure, including a private sector initiative designed to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The security piece of the picture does not include new alliances, but is open to security cooperation on common threats. Needless to say, the approach talks about the importance of protecting borders, a major domestic theme of Donald Trump’s.

Finally, the administration returns to a theme that has not received much attention from the president himself: the importance of “transparent and responsive government, the rule of law and the protection of individual rights, including religious freedom.” Support for democracy has not been a big theme of this administration, but there are clearly Republicans as well as Democrats who believe that these issues need more attention — including with respect to North Korea.

What is missing from this picture is obvious: China. In fact, the entire strategy is motivated by the administration’s definition of China as a peer competitor. The resolution of at least some economic conflicts with allies has only underlined the mounting economic pressure the Trump administration is bringing to bear on China. Pence’s earlier speech went to great lengths to outline the risks posed by the more expansionist conception of China’s interests articulated by Xi Jinping, with the South China Sea as a testing ground. And as we have long known, human rights can be used as another instrument to bash enemies while ignoring the crimes committed by your friends. The embarrassing murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives has roiled American politics on this issue.

What does this strategy mean for South Korea? First, it is important to state the obvious: We do not yet know how committed Trump is to this or any other overarching foreign policy vision. It is telling that Trump himself is not coming to the three important summits scheduled for November; nor is U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo.

Second, in some ways the approach could be seen with relief: The United States is finally coming back to the bipartisan consensus on the region. A free and open Indo-Pacific is in line with the spirit of the U.S.-Korea alliance, and also comports with South Korea’s own national interests in a peaceful Southeast and South Asia. South Korea, too, has growing stakes in this part of the world and an independent role to play in the region.

The challenge for the Moon administration is the risk of getting pulled into a more rigid, containment approach to China. I and many other analysts of the region believe that it is in the interest of Northeast Asian peace and security for Korea to maintain good relations with all of its neighbors, including China and even North Korea if Pyongyang is truly willing.

But South Korea’s relationship with China has not been altogether easy, as President Xi pressured the Moon administration on the terminal high altitude area defense system and treated the South Korean president without the appropriate respect. Polling shows that Korean public opinion on China has soured in recent years. The challenge is not how to “balance” between the United States and China — as Roh Moo Hyun suggested — but to work out an honest relationship with China that maintains Korean security, interests and dignity; this is a Korean task, not an American one.

If the free and open Indo-Pacific approach is pursued with calm and leaves open an improved relationship with China, it is not that much of a departure from the longstanding American approach to the region. The question is always whether Trump can stay on script, and more importantly whether mounting domestic pressures will deflect his attention from Asia.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 16, Page 29