Asean-South Korea ties deepen, but partnership still lacks 'legacy project'

BUSAN (ANN): South Korea and South-east Asia may have deepened ties and cooperation in numerous areas, but observers say the partnership still lacks a "legacy project" that will go down in history.

Dozens of memorandums of understanding were signed on the sidelines of the Asean-Korea Commemorative Summit in Busan this week, as South Korea seeks to step up collaboration with Asean in areas ranging from technology to logistics, security and smart cities.

Most notably, South Korea's motoring giant Hyundai said it will invest some US$1.55bil in Indonesia to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Kota Deltamas, east of Jakarta, by 2021.

There are also plans to establish a Korea Startup Centre in Singapore next year to support small Korean firms hoping to venture into South-east Asia with Singapore as a base.

Asean is South Korea's second-largest trade partner, after China. Bilateral trade has grown from US$119biL in 2016 to US$160bil last year, on the strength of South Korean President Moon Jae-in's New Southern Policy (NSP) aimed at elevating ties with the regional bloc.

Dr Lee Jae-hyon of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, an expert on South-east Asia, said the NSP is "quite an achievement" for the liberal Moon administration. But while cooperation projects with each Asean country are aplenty, they are nothing out of the ordinary.

"Where's the innovation in NSP? We need a flagship project that shows Asean people that South Korea is taking action - one that will leave a legacy," Dr Lee told The Straits Times.

Shawn Ho, an associate research fellow at NTU's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agreed that it would be good to have a "signature initiative that people can connect to Asean and Korea".

"It may not be on the same scale as China's Belt and Road initiative, or have the same magnitude as America's Indo-Pacific Strategy. But it can be a signature project that lends focus to Asean-Korea ties."

Ho said this is something that South Korea can explore for the second phase of the NSP, noting that Mr Moon still has half of his five-year term to complete.

Analysts agree that the South Korean President deserves credit for his devotion to NSP, despite facing other diplomatic challenges such as rocky inter-Korea ties, the trade war between the United States and China, and friction with Japan over historical issues.

In fact, NSP arose out of Seoul's urgent need to diversify its diplomacy and reduce economic reliance on traditional partners US, China, Russia and Japan.

Since announcing the policy in late 2017, Moon has become the first-ever Korean president to visit all 10 Asean countries within his term.

Some experts, in fact, speculate that Moon's Asean outreach could prove to be his biggest diplomatic achievement.

International studies professor Leif-Eric Easley of Korean's Ewha Womans University said: "The New Southern Policy can be Moon's greatest foreign policy legacy if, by demonstrating capacity-building achievements in South-east Asia, Seoul can credibly show Pyongyang the benefits of future integration.

"Contributions to regional public goods can also help South Korea navigate US-China rivalry by complementing both the Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative, without having to choose between the two."

Other experts, however, feel it remains to be seen if NSP would lose momentum once inter-Korea relations improve.

President Moon won accolades last year for successfully mediating talks between the US and North Korea. But cross-border ties are now frozen after Pyongyang and Washington failed to narrow their differences in advancing nuclear talks.

"If denuclearisation talks work out well and bring about historic change on the Korean Peninsula, that would be President Moon's biggest legacy," Ho said.

"It's uncertain if progress in Asean-Korea ties can match up with the potential progress in inter-Korea ties should there be a denuclearisation deal." - The Straits Times/ANN

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