[Column] Will South Korea regret going all-in on US Indo-Pacific strategy?

Posted on : 2023-06-01 17:15 KST Modified on : 2023-06-01 17:15 KST
The basis of Korea’s strategy in the region seems to be crumbling under closer scrutiny
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea chairs the second session of the Korea-Pacific Islands summit held at the Blue House in Seoul on May 29. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea chairs the second session of the Korea-Pacific Islands summit held at the Blue House in Seoul on May 29. (courtesy of the presidential office)
By Jung E-gil, senior international affair writer

Following the recent Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima from May 19-21, President Yoon Suk-yeol once again stressed the importance of Indo-Pacific strategy on Monday at the 2023 Korea-Pacific Islands summit. Yoon announced Korea’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific at the ASEAN summit held on Nov. 11 last year, and the government made this official by releasing its “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” report on Dec. 28.

The phrase “Indo-Pacific” is symbolic of America’s strategic policy on China, and the decision to include this in the report’s title suggests that after going all-in on strengthening alliances with the US and Japan, the Yoon administration is now jumping on the bandwagon of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

However, not only are the premise of the strategy and its establishment unclear, but it also contains a number of loopholes. The core of this strategy revolves around adding India to the list of countries hemming in and blockading China. This was made concrete through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue consisting of the US, Japan, Australia and India.

Now the US hopes to expand its military and economic influence in the Indian Ocean. India is well aware of this, benefiting from support from the US through the Quad while also drawing a clear line in the sand in the confrontation with China. India’s strategy of “having their cake and eating it too” is paying off in spades.

When the US formed the AUKUS alliance with the UK and Australia last September as a pillar of its strategy for the Indo-Pacific, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan called it a “strategic alliance of Anglo-Saxon nations” that has “neither relevance to Quad, nor will it have any impact on its functioning.”

With AUKUS aimed at targeting China in military terms, Indian media outlets reported that drawing a clear line to prevent AUKUS from influencing the Quad was an expression of displeasure over the US offering nuclear submarine technology to Australia.

A submission to Foreign Affairs titled “America’s Bad Bet on India — New Delhi Won’t Side With Washington Against Beijing” drew a lot of attention. This piece was written by Ashley Tellis, an Indian-born senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who was involved when the George Bush administration sought to improve US-India relations to a “strategic partner” level through the provision of nuclear technology in the 2000s.

“India values cooperation with Washington for the tangible benefits it brings but does not believe that it must, in turn, materially support the United States in any crisis—even one involving a common threat such as China,” he stated in the article. In particular, Tellis stressed that India could never accept the interoperability, which refers to the joint operations against China that the US hopes to achieve in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

In a televised debate with Tellis after his opinion piece, Indian Minister of Foreign Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stated that “such differences will arise with a country like the US,” which searches the world for alliances. “Two Quad members, Australia and Japan, are allies of the US,” he said, adding that he thought it would be better for India and US to remain “partners.”

Arzan Tarapore, a research scholar at Stanford University, then wrote a counter piece titled “America’s Best Bet in the Indo-Pacific” in which he argued that the US “should support India’s efforts to extend its military posture in the Indian Ocean region, including by upgrading its base infrastructure and military equipment.” In the war with Ukraine, India has not only refused to participate in US sanctions against Russia, but expanded bilateral trade with Russia. Yet despite this, the US has actually made India bristle. This is a clear demonstration of the current situation between the two nations.

Compared to India, the Indo-Pacific strategy has even more holes in the Middle East. For the US, the strategy is premised on stability in the Middle East. The normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, in which China played a mediating role, demonstrates the rapid geopolitical changes taking place in the Middle East since the Ukraine war.

Since the beginning of the war, Saudi Arabia has teamed up with Russia and led cuts in oil production, while also expanding relations with China. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has announced that his country will steer an independent course away from the US and its allies, also recently succeeded in retaining power.

While the US builds an anti-China blockade in India and the Pacific, China and Russia appear to be coming out ahead in the Middle East. The China-Russia-Iran alliance that Zbigniew Brzezinski had pointed to as the biggest threat to US supremacy has now come into focus. United States national security advisor Jake Sullivan made a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia on May 7 to get the ball rolling on I2U2, a cooperative body between the US, India, Israel and the UAE. Sullivan also proposed large-scale infrastructure projects, including a railway network to link the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Saudi Arabia in June.

The US is now having to backpedal in the Middle East because the scrum appears to be collapsing between Israel and conservative Sunni monarchies such as Saudi Arabia that have tried to block the China-Russia-Iran alliance in the Middle East.

Jensen Huang, the CEO of American semiconductor firm Nvidia, has attacked the US standoff with China for ruining the big tech industry. Complaints over the Indo-Pacific strategy’s side effects are also spreading in US financial circles. In this sense, concern over the policy is growing in India, the Middle East and the US financial sector.

However, Korea is moving in the other direction by deciding to go all-in on the Indo-Pacific strategy. It is only natural to be concerned about the potential rough weather coming Korea’s way, including the trade deficit with China.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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