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Moon avoids ‘Indo-Pacific’ label

Nov 11,2017
The Blue House made public its reluctance to endorse the Trump administration’s new foreign policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” on Thursday.

Senior presidential officials said Thursday that Korea needs to study the new U.S. foreign policy term - “Indo-Pacific” - before publicly endorsing it. The stance quickly prompted a controversy as a joint statement from the summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday specifically said the Korea-U.S. alliance was helping to ensure Washington’s policy in the region.

“President Trump highlighted that the United States-Republic of Korea alliance, built upon mutual trust and shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, remains a linchpin for security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the joint statement, released on Wednesday night.

About 15 hours later, Kim Hyun-chul, economic adviser to Moon, rejected the idea.

“Japan is trying to build the Indo-Pacific line to build a diplomatic link of Japan, Australia, India and the United States, but we don’t have to join it,” Kim said during a press briefing in Jakarta. Kim was accompanying Moon on a presidential visit to the Southeast Asian nation.

Over the past few years, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advocated the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and Trump is promoting it as a new U.S. policy concept for Asia. It is seemingly intended to check an increasingly assertive China by expanding the concept of “Asia-Pacific” to include India.

Before his trip to Korea earlier this week, Trump visited Japan and had a summit with Abe. A White House press release on Monday noted that the summit “aligned our strategic priorities toward a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

After Kim’s remarks, questions grew about Seoul’s stance on the Indo-Pacific term. Asked about its mention in the joint statement summarizing the Moon-Trump summit, a senior Blue House official gave an explanation that only fueled the controversy.

“It is in the joint statement, but we did not agree with the idea,” he said. “If you look at the statement, President Trump is the subject of the particular sentence, not the two presidents.”

“Because we thought it was undesirable to endorse it, Moon just listened to Trump’s remarks. Moon even said it was practically the first time for him to learn about the concept and that was why we agreed to leave his name out from the statement.”

The Blue House also went a step further and released an official statement Thursday night.

“The Indo-Pacific concept newly presented by the United States shares some common points with Korea’s policy to pursue diplomatic diversity,” it said. “But we concluded that we need further consultation to see if it is an appropriate concept of the region to push forward the two countries’ common strategic goals.

“That was why the two sides agreed to only include the U.S. explanation in the joint statement,” it said. “Korea and the United States will have close consultations on the new U.S. initiative in the future to find out possible cooperative measures.”

A senior official of the Blue House admitted to the JoongAng Ilbo that China was the main factor in Korea’s reluctance to associate itself with the term. Moon will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping Saturday afternoon in Vietnam on the sidelines of an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

“We wanted to maintain strategic ambiguity, but Kim’s remarks ruined the plan,” he said. “Moon will be having a summit with Xi soon, and how can we possibly endorse a concept of militarily containing China? This is frustrating.”

Experts are concerned about Seoul’s handling of the situation. “If Korea did not agree with it, it should have not been included in the joint statement,” a former senior diplomat said. “If there was a disagreement, then it should have stated what Moon’s stance was.”

“From the U.S. point of view, including the phrase in the joint statement means that the Korea-U.S. alliance endorsed the Indo-Pacific strategy,” another expert said. “It is nonsense for the Blue House to say now that it never agreed to it.”

Experts also said it was absurd for the Blue House to say that Moon had never heard of the Indo-Pacific strategy because Trump used the term repeatedly since he arrived in Japan to begin his Asia tour.

BY SER MYO-JA, KANG TAE-HWA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]