Seoul’s Geopolitical Code on Quad: Imperative or Elective?
Under the new government helmed by President Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea (ROK) has displayed a clear tilt toward and a more open embrace of the Indo- Pacific concept. Interestingly, Yoon has also expressed the need for a review of South Korea’s ties with China, strengthening the United States–South Korea alliance, and an interest in participating in the Quad forum. This article looks to explore such goals and understand the political and strategic imperatives of a Quad plus South Korea framework. The article outlines the transition in South Korea’s foreign policy toward the Indo- Pacific under Moon Jae- in and Yoon. It analyses South Korea’s bilateral connections with the four Quad powers—India, Japan, the United States and Australia—to draw conclusions as to what capacity Quad–ROK cooperation can take a real shape — particularly considering the disconnect between their priorities vis- à- vis China and North Korea. Additionally, it examines the scope for South Korea’s great-er involvement in the other Indo-Pacific–oriented initiatives (like Build Back Better World, Democracy 10, and Global Gateway) and regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Globally, states are looking for renewed alignments and realignments as the war in Ukraine rages on and as the debate on autocracies versus democracies intensifies. One of the most important voices has been that of US President Joe Biden: “In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”1
Nowhere in the Indo-Pacific is this choice more relevant—and more evident—than in the Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea), which not only evolved from the throes of authoritarianism to a well-rounded democracy but also faces, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK; North Korea,) a neighbor that is still caught in the past: a totalitarian legacy that has deepened repression and continues to violate multiple United Nations (UN) resolutions.2 At the same time, the ROK is faced with its other neighbor, China, whose rise has swiftly gone from being peaceful to being contentious and conflict ridden. China’s rise as an economically and militarily powerful major power, as well as its ongoing (and rather intense) rivalry with the United States, has had unprecedented and long-term implications on not just the ROK’s economy but also Seoul’s foreign policy, which was stuck in an unending loop of balancing and hedging. This has resulted in a burgeoning power dwarfed by its own compulsions.
Against this scenario, the recent embrace of the Indo-Pacific construct by the new ROK government under President Yoon Suk-yeol has elicited several speculations and questions. Korea and Indo-Pacific watchers across the world have raised debates about the potential geostrategic and geopolitical trajectory of this yet-to-be released vision for the ROK’s unfulfilled ambitions as an Asian powerhouse. Also brought to the forefront are concerns for regional and global security implications of Seoul’s tilt toward the Indo-Pacific. Some of the foremost debates center on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad, comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the United States), the mainstay of the Indo-Pacific—and by extension, Asian—security architecture today. In particular, the new South Korean government’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific, and explicit interest in the Quad, has raised the following questions:
- What are South Korea’s underlying reasons for seeking a role within the Quad? What is the nature of its bilateral ties with the four Quad member states? Looking at this, does South Korea merit inclusion into this much-touted forum?
- What are the potential means of Seoul’s participation: as a full partner or through a quasi-association with the Quad Plus or working groups?
- What is the nature of the ROK’s engagement (existing or potential) with other global multilateral (and minilateral) initiatives aimed at the region? This includes forums and frameworks such as the Build Back Better World (B3W), Democracy 10 (D10), Global Gateway, Five Eyes (FVEY), Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), and the latest US-initiated Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), as well as regional groupings like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)–centered Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
This article attempts to answer such questions by first outlining South Korea’s foreign policy transition in its long-awaited recognition of the existing liberal, universal values-based Indo-Pacific architecture—during the Moon Jae-in era (from ambiguous to tacit approval) and at the outset of Yoon’s presidential tenure (ardent, unequivocal support). It explores Yoon’s rhetoric and examines what the ROK’s involvement in the Quad format would mean for his broader regional policy. Next, it attempts to analyze how far the bilateral connect between the ROK and the individual Quad states will propel its inclusion in the Quad format, and in what capacity is Quad–ROK cooperation likely to be realized while also examining Quad’s North Korea focus. Finally, it scans the potential scope of the underutilized South Korean middle-power diplomacy in other Indo-Pacific–oriented initiatives (like B3W, D10, and Global Gateway) and regional organizations like ASEAN.
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