In general, I agree with Dr. Swaine’s observations. But I belong to the generation of the Asia-Pacific. I am rather a stranger to the new idea of the Indo-Pacific. Nowadays, wherever you go — Europe, Japan, South Korea, the United States and even Southeast Asia — the Indo-Pacific has become a dominant theme.
In my opinion, the Indo-Pacific concept is very much based on the traditional American maritime strategy. Meanwhile, the concept of Asia-Pacific originates from the combination of maritime and continental thinking for peaceful coexistence in our part of the world. As the case of APEC demonstrates, China and Russia — two continental powers — were included in the Asia Pacific region. I now see that the Indo-Pacific concept is radically replacing the Asia-Pacific one and that the Asian continent is disappearing from the geopolitical map. Consequently, confrontation between the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific and the old Asia-Pacific region has become more visible than ever before. It is a bad omen for peace, security and stability in our part of the world. That’s my starting proposition.
My second proposition is that South Korea is in a very difficult situation because of growing tension between Beijing and Washington. Geopolitical confrontation and economic competition —particularly in the areas of trade and technology — between the two powers have been intensifying. A clash of values between liberal and illiberal states has also become visible, reminiscent of the old Cold War.
South Korea faces a serious dilemma of choice in this dyadic confrontation. Pressures have come mostly from the U.S. From a geopolitical point of view, Washington has been pushing Seoul to embrace the Indo-Pacific strategy and to cooperate with the Quad and AUKUS, aiming to encircle China. Although the U.S. is its most important ally, South Korea is not in a position to antagonize China. In the geo-economic arena, the U.S. has been seeking to decouple China from global supply chain. South Korea joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and has been strengthening economic ties with the U.S. But China is Seoul’s largest trading partner, accounting for 25 percent of its total trade volume. Therefore, it is not easy for South Korea to join the decoupling effort wholeheartedly.
Washington has also been urging Seoul to deepen bilateral technology cooperation at the expense of China. Semiconductors are a good example. The Biden administration has wanted South Korea’s leading semiconductor manufacturers to invest in the U.S. and divert away from the Chinese market within the framework of the Chip 4 initiative. But they export about 60 percent of their products to China (40 percent to the Chinese mainland, 20 percent to Hong Kong), while importing almost 60 percent of chip-related critical materials from China. Therefore, they cannot easily discard China.
Even in the area of value, I see some tension. The U.S. has been championing the liberal coalition to fight against illiberal states such as China and Russia. The Yoon Seok-yeol government has given the impression that it has joined the liberal coalition by emphasizing freedom, human rights and democracy. Such a stance could pose a major problem in dealing with China in years to come.
All these developments are quite worrisome. Polarization of the international system and the rise of bloc diplomacy in the region could bring major security, diplomatic and economic dilemmas to South Korea. And we cannot anticipate security, stability and peaceful development in this part of the world under such a devolving regional order.
What should be done? My basic idea is this: First, I think that there has got to be a restoration of the Asia-Pacific concept. The Indo-Pacific is somehow associated with the logic of bloc diplomacy, exclusiveness and the geopolitical division of maritime and continental powers. The disappearance of “Asia” is quite troublesome for all Asians. Therefore, it is important for us to reassess the meaning and implications of the Indo-Pacific more critically and revalue the traditional Asia-Pacific concept for inclusiveness, cooperation and stability.
Second, cooperative security needs to be re-energized. Now we see the big clash in this part of the world between the America-centered collective defense based on alliance and China’s vision of a collective security system based on the United Nations Charter and multilateral security cooperation. To overcome such tension and subsequent instability, we need to re-energize cooperative security while enhancing preventive diplomacy.
Third, I would also like to highlight the urgency of open regionalism. The Indo-Pacific economic framework, the logic of decoupling, reshoring and friend-shoring, and Chip 4, all involve closed regionalism. Closed regionalism contradicts basic norms, principles and rules of the liberal international trading order which the United States has created and sustained. We should return to open regionalism. Although its performance has been rather dismal, APEC is a good example of open regionalism. Even the CPTPP is based on the concept of open regionalism. Thus, the current pattern of closed regionalism is really something like going against the stream of history.
Fourth, multilateralism must be resuscitated. The world is becoming fragmented. In a fragmented world, we cannot find room for harmony, stability, and peaceful development. It is necessary for us to return to the basic norms, principles, and rules of multilateralism in order to avoid a fragmented world. And I really want to emphasize the importance of preventing a clash of civilizations. The Western idea of dividing the world into liberal and illiberal states is extremely misleading and even destabilizing. Boosting tension and conflicts between the two blocs is even worse. Every society has its own cultural and historical contexts, and we need to learn how to respect the differences and live harmoniously.
Finally, mutual respect and strategic empathy should guide our terms of engagement. That is the best way to enhance peaceful coexistence among different civilizations. Mutual respect comes from strategic empathy. When we think about others in others’ shoes, we can have a better understanding of others, which will reduce potential for misunderstanding and conflict. I think that such inter-subjective understanding is the surest way to peaceful co-existence, harmony and common prosperity.
(Speech delivered at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum in November 2022)