The Indo-Pacific region is moving toward geopolitical polarisation, and some developments in past years have accelerated its pace. These developments include issues of Supply chain resilience, Reformed Multilateralism, China’s rise, and the recent fallouts of Ukraine’s invasion. These same trends are also shaping the domestic politics of many states in the region. As the conservative is shift taking place in the regional power dynamics. With it, foreign policy shifts are also taking place in the broader region of Indo-Pacific, particularly in North-East Asia.
South Korea concluded its presidential elections on March 10, 2022 with the conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of PPP (People’s Power Party) winning against Lee Jae-myung of DP (Democratic Party) in a close-tight race. The rise of conservative leaders worldwide is more emphasized in the post-Trumpian era. Yoon Suk-yeol won the election results from many complex factors, mainly domestic and some recent international developments. Due to the South Korean geopolitical position in the Korean Peninsula amidst the great and middle powers in the region, it becomes challenging to remain isolated from the geopolitical undercurrents. The change in the administration in Seoul brings with it a New Strategy and New Convergences that would have implications on the broader geopolitical game in the Indo-Pacific region.
The international implications for the change in administration in Seoul and how this impacts the Indo-Pacific stability is something to be observed. Some experts attribute these geopolitical shifts in the Indo-Pacific region to the rise of China, and yes, it remains the fundamental reason. However, this change is also a signal of an uncertain emerging world where states are feeling insecure, or it seems that they realize that their degree of strategic autonomy will be constrained going forward. This insecurity is primarily due to the weakening of a global liberal order that earlier ensured that international rules and laws are followed or seem to be followed. But now we see a world where the rules of the Powerful work as opposed to the power of the rules.
Seoul New Presidential Elections and Realignment in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics
The Conservative shift in Seoul with Yoon Suk-yeol winning the elections strengthens the Indo-Pacific region’s stability and the emerging multipolar world. In today’s geopolitical turbulence, states are looking to maximize their interests. Many states recognize the emergence of new threats, shaping a new ‘cold-war’ that poses enormous risks to their national security. South Korea is one among the many states facing this dilemma and is now addressing it.
Under Yoon South Korea will align more closely with the U.S. This is due to two reasons; to build its military and strategic capacities and strengthen the alliance with the U.S to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific Region, particularly in Korean Peninsula. The emergence of the drift was already noticed through the formation of AUKUS and Quad. These partnerships were formed to ensure a stable strategic security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. The US understands that this geopolitical game in Indo-Pacific is not for the US alone. It needs allies, friends, and partners that can work together for mutual gains.
We see that the foundations of the international consensus of respecting the sovereignty of a state are being obliterated. This suggests that the unipolar world that the U.S. dominated, upholding the already broken but still working ‘liberal order,’ is now shifting towards a ‘multipolar’ world. Many states now feel empowered to challenge the U.S. in their region. It is multipolar because the importance of middle and emerging power states has increased exponentially with the rising of new actors. South Korea is an important actor shaping the rules in the Indo-Pacific region and internationally. However, we see that strategic consent is again shifting towards bipolarity. In other words, the global geopolitical rivalry and normative discourse will become more bipolar. Still, at the same time, the regional power dynamics will be shaped by multipolar and issue-based alignment will take precedence.
In the emerging complex geopolitical terrain, states like Japan and South Korea, both allies of the U.S, will choose the path of aligning closely with the U.S. to maximize their security. Some states like India and Vietnam will also work closely with the U.S but follow an issue-based alignment. With Yoon Suk-yeol at the helm of affairs, we will see some changes in the foreign policy approach of South Korea. Yoon has expressed to work closely with Japan. The Comfort women issue and the legacy of Colonization still overshadow and act as an irritant to strengthen the strategic ties between South Korea and Japan.
Yoon recognizes that to formulate a better strategy against the DPRK, there needs to be more coherence between Seoul and Tokyo’s strategy and policy coordination. Yoon’s foreign policy postures also address some U.S. issues in the North-East Asian region. This was also stated in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy released by the Biden Administration, emphasizing closer working between Seoul and Tokyo. As opposed to Moon Jae-in and his successor, the presidential candidate from Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, Yoon becoming the President will ensure better coordination between the Japan-South Korea-U.S. The Stance taken by Yoon on a closer relationship with Japan also resonates with the domestic environment where the perception towards Japan is also changing, and China is rising as an antagonist.
Yoon’s approach towards the leading regional players in Indo-Pacific and its objectives
Yoon has stated his intention to align his approach with the U.S on Indo-Pacific. His objective to work closely with member Quad and its member countries shows that Yoon recognizes the narrow strategic bandwidth to maneuver in the future. The policymakers and advisers associated with President Yoon have shown positive views towards joining Quad. Some experts have talked about taking an incremental approach in joining Quad by cooperation in working groups. The closer relationship between Quad and Seoul will help in addressing two issues. Firstly, it asserts the commitments of the democratic and like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region to work closely to uphold the Free, Open and Inclusive Indo-Pacific. Secondly, the South Korea endorsement of Quad strengthens the resolve of some states in the ASEAN to be more vocal. As constraints exist within ASEAN, the emergence of independent state’s voices of ASEAN gives more legitimacy to the Quad. South Korea joining the Quad remains a far-fetched idea; however, closer working relations between the Quad and other independent states in the Indo-Pacific region may remove some hesitation from the ASEAN states, strengthening the rules-based liberal order.
South Korea’s New Southern Strategy conceptualized under President Moon Jae-in focused on closer cooperation and working with ASEAN and India. The change in administration in Seoul will not bring any drastic shift in the foreign policy approach towards the South and South-East Asia region but may only strengthen the relations building upon his predecessor. The Indian Act East Policy converges with South Korea’s New Southern Policy. The growing relations between the two in the economic domain and the synergized new partnership in the Defense sector show the increasing depth of the relations. Indian Army’s additional acquisition of K-9 Vajra Howitzers and their expected deployment on the LAC (Indo-China border) is a testimonial of the closeness between the two states. The South Korean Navy also participated in the Milan-2022 exercise held by the Indian Navy for the first time.
We may see closer cooperation among all the democratic and like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy to mobilize opinions and condemnation of the DPRK violations, in continuation with President Moon’s Policy, but more actively under President Yoon. On the issue of North Korea, Yoon has taken a firmer stand than his predecessor. The Foreign policy under President Moon of strategic ambiguity now is likely to change towards strategic certainty. This means that going forward, the Foreign Policy under Yoon will be more explicit and more decisive. Yoon’s statement on China and North Korea points towards a change.
However, the room for negotiations will always be open. He feels that the way forward in the relation should be a reciprocation of behavior on both sides; extending olive branches to the North doesn’t seem to have made any dent in its behavior. He also takes a more realistic stand concerning china yet recognizes the trade factor as a balancer in the relations. It is to be seen whether Yoon will continue to reiterate the position on Taiwan taken by his predecessor. Still, it’s sure that even Beijing recognizes that the wind over the peninsula has changed. President Yoon’s decision to deploy THAAD may be another destabilizing factor in the relations going forward.
Expectation versus Reality: The way forward
With a conservative candidate at the helm of affairs in Seoul and Yoon’s Strategic certainty as to the foundation of Seoul’s foreign policy, we can expect closer cooperation and engagement between South Korea and the U.S in the region. President Yoon will also strengthen the relations with Japan and will build ties with ASEAN and India in the Indo-Pacific region through the New Southern Policy of President Moon. A clear shift that may happen will be with North Korea and China, keeping in mind the region’s geopolitical change. This change will not be as easy as it seems because of Seoul’s trade relations with China and China’s heft on North Korea. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine has only made the situation in Indo-Pacific quite difficult as more attention and resources are being diverted towards Eastern Europe. This may continue for quite a long time. Therefore, to think that Yoon’s Foreign Policy will bring any remarkable change in its early years apart from some strong statements will be jumping conclusions. But what remains to be seen is whether the resolve Yoon has shown during his campaign will be sustained in facing domestic challenges that resulted in him getting elected.
*Abhishek Sharma is a Doctoral Student in Korean Studies under the Department of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi. He is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy