News analysis

Moon Jae In makes good start in bid to focus on Asean

But it remains to be seen if Seoul will go on to seize growth opportunities

After months of promising to upgrade ties with South-east Asia, South Korean President Moon Jae In has personally delivered the message to the region in a week-long, three-country tour that showed he meant business.

Throughout his visit to Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, Mr Moon repeatedly emphasised his vision to "dramatically strengthen" cooperation with Asean with a strong focus on three Ps - people-centred exchanges, peaceful co-existence and joint prosperity.

He also pledged to increase bilateral trade with Asean to US$200 billion (S$271.3 billion) by 2020 - up from US$118.8 billion last year - and took a 200-member business delegation to his first stop, Jakarta, last Wednesday.

Mr Moon, who returned to Seoul on Wednesday, also had summits with Asean leaders, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Manila.

He plans to visit all 10 Asean nations within his five-year term.

Analysts said Mr Moon's move marked a "good beginning" and he demonstrated strong political will, but it remains to be seen if his government can follow up quickly enough and seize the growth opportunities brimming in Asean.

Mr Shawn Ho, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told The Straits Times that Mr Moon had made a "very good move" to head to Asean's biggest economy, Indonesia, first.

South Korean President Moon Jae In (far left) with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, when they met on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Manila on Monday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

He also noted that the two countries' leaders issued a long and extensive joint statement - 1,710 words to be exact - that detailed the future of their collaboration across various sectors, from defence and infrastructure development to tourism and petrochemicals. The two countries also signed five memorandums of understanding worth US$1.9 billion, including one to develop a light rail transit system in Jakarta.

Mr Ho added: "We'll have to see how it will be implemented and when they will do it, but it's a good sign they are keen to do so many things going forward."

Dr Lee Jae Hyon, from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Mr Moon did "quite a good job" outlining his Korea-Asean vision and that it marks a good beginning.

The President's so-called New Southern Policy is a first for South Korea. While Asean is a dialogue and trade partner, South Korea focused its diplomacy on major powers United States, China, Japan and Russia in the past.

Seoul started to widen its horizons only early this year, after suffering a Chinese boycott over a diplomatic row arising from the deployment of a US missile shield, and facing pressure from US President Donald Trump to reduce its trade deficit with America.

Some observers voiced concern that South Korea may be less committed to Asean now that it has mended ties with its biggest trade partner China, but others said Seoul has learnt its lesson the hard way and will continue to pursue diplomacy diversification and avoid an over-reliance on any single country.

Dr Lee pointed out the need to change the Korean perception of Asean as developing nations with cheap tourism options, to an economic bloc that offers huge growth potential.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2017, with the headline 'Moon Jae In makes good start in bid to focus on Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe