South Korean leader shows political will to upgrade ties with Asean

(From left) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the East Asia Summit in Manila, Philippines, on Nov 14, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - 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 serious business.

Throughout his visit to Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, Mr Moon repeatedly emphasised his vision to "dramatically strengthen" cooperation with the Association of South-east Asian Nations 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$272 billion)by 2020 - up from US$118.8 billion last year - and took a 200-member business delegation to his first stop, Jakarta, on Nov 8.

Mr Moon, who returned to Seoul on Wednesday (Nov 15), 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 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 made a "very good move" to head to Asean's biggest economy, Indonesia, first.

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 to infrastructure development, tourism, and petrochemicals. The two countries also signed five Memoranda of Understanding worth US$1.9 billion, including one to develop a light rail transit system to ease traffic congestion 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, a South-east Asian expert from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies think-tank, said Mr Moon did "quite a good job" outlining his Korea-Asean vision in various speeches and 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 horizon only early this year, after suffering a Chinese boycott over a diplomatic row arising from the deployment of a controversial 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, after an Oct 31 agreement, but others said Seoul has learnt its lesson the hard way and will continue to pursue diplomacy diversification and avoid over-reliance on any single country.

Mr Ho said: "China is obviously still very important to Korea, but with the Thaad (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) row still at the back of people's mind, Korea will be a bit more careful about China. It's once bitten, twice shy."

Dr Lee, who has long argued that South Korea should pay more attention to Asean, its second-largest trading partner, pointed out the need to change Korean perception of Asean as developing nations with cheap tourism options to an economic bloc that offers huge growth potential. "If our partnership with the four major powers led to what we have today, cooperation with South-east Asia is the future of the Korean economy."