Smaller countries can be 'middle power' in East Asia, says top South Korean diplomat

SMALLER players can play a big role in establishing the rules of engagement in East Asia, a top South Korean diplomat said on Thursday (aug29).

"Constructive middle power diplomacy can serve as a catalyst in East Asia than in any other region to address the challenges we face and promote the establishment of relevant governance, rules and norms," Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Kyung Soo told participants at the inaugural Korea-Singapore forum at Marina Mandarin hotel.

Mr Lee painted a picture of an East Asia emerging as "the core of global growth" amid challenges such as North Korea's nuclear ambitions, maritime disputes, the cyber threat and climate change.

"These daunting challenges cannot be met solely by major powers as they once did in the past," he told an audience of more than 40 politicians, diplomats, businessmen and academics from Singapore and South Korea.

Elaborating on the concept of a middle power, Mr Lee told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the forum that whether a country is one is not dependent on its size.

Singapore, he said, can contribute to such a collaboration in a meaningful way, pointing to the way it is capable of projecting power above its small size and population.

Middle powers can form a "coalition of the willing" to address targeted issues of common concern - the lack of a substantial level of institutionalisation in East Asian cooperation also meant that there is ample room for a "robust middle power collaboration".

Singapore's Deputy Secretary for Foreign Affairs Simon Wong, in his speech, said that with the uncertainties in the region, countries are asking themselves: "Is there anything we can do to help make the region more stable?"

Participants at Thursday's forum, organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University and the Korea Foundation, took part in three closed-door sessions that focused on ways in which countries and middle powers can join hands for a prosperous Asian partnership.

The forum is yet another notch in expanding bilateral ties marked by close economic, cultural, defence and political exchanges, said Mr Barry Desker, dean of RSIS.

Supporting Mr Lee's call, Mr Desker said that while South Korea and Singapore may not be able to influence regional developments individually, the two countries "can cooperate and work together to mitigate tensions and promote constructive relations in the region".

After the discussions, forum participants were hosted to dinner by Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Foreign Minister Grace Fu.