Opinion & Analysis

Korea looks to the Pacific

As Korea turns its attention to the Pacific, leaders in the region find themselves in the unusual position of having to manage global competition for their attention. Philip Turner has this perspective on the growing importance of the Pacific, and the island nations response to an increasing interest from offshore.  

The last year has seen an accelerating series of visits, initiatives and international conferences centred on the Pacific Islands. 

China created waves in 2022 by signing a security agreement with the Solomon Islands, sending its Foreign Minister to eight countries in the Pacific proposing a regional economic security agreement.

China has been active in the region for a long time, but this burst of diplomatic energy appeared to trigger other regional powers to show new attention to the Pacific.

Since then the US, Japan and India have each held summits for Pacific leaders, while the UK, France, Germany and Indonesia have sought to increase their ties to the region.

The latest to join the flurry was South Korea, whose President Yoon Suk-Yeol hosted 17 of the 18 Pacific Island Forum (PIF) , to a Korea-Pacific Islands Summit in Seoul on May 29-30.

 Korea had previously hosted meetings of Pacific foreign ministers, but this was the first at leader level.

It is striking that the President chose the Pacific as the focus of his first major multilateral summit since coming to power a year ago.

Under Yoon, Korea has shifted to a more outgoing foreign policy stance, explicitly adopting an Indo-Pacific strategy, and assertively supporting global rules and human rights under the banner of a `Global Pivotal State`.  

Like New Zealand, Korea is deeply dependent on trade with China, and wary of “decoupling” from China.  Under Yoon, Korea has edged closer to the US while seeking to maintain cordial relations with China.

But it is finding  the process tough going.

Earlier this month Yoon felt obliged to rebuke publicly China`s ambassador to Korea for being `disrespectful` in suggesting South Korea had made the wrong choice by siding with the United States against China.

For Korea, enhancing its presence in the Pacific is part of a broader aim to increase its global profile as the world`s 10th largest economy.

There is an obvious upside for the Pacific: at the summit Korea pledged to double its development funding to the region by 2027, to establish diplomatic ties with Niue, and to consider further diplomatic representation in the region. The declaration reflected the key priorities of the region: climate change, health and economic development.   

Yet Korea has some way to go in comparing itself to global peers. 

Its contribution to development finance in 2020 amounted to only US$15.52, a mere 0.36% of combined donor expenditure to the Pacific.  Under Yoon`s pledge that will rise to US$39.9 million by 2027.

More broadly, the new interest being shown by Korea and others brings to the fore the opportunity for Pacific leaders to wield influence on the global stage, despite the tiny size of many Pacific countries.

Part of Yoon`s motivation at the Summit was to secure votes for Korea's candidacy to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan.

The PIF has a potentially enormous role to play in coordinating the voice of the region and ensuring it maximizes the opportunity for influence.

But doing so is not going to be easy.

 Immediately after the Seoul summit, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare released a statement saying his government could not align with the Summit Declaration because of an “element” in the statement targeting third countries. “We shall not be forced to take sides and participate in power politics” he said.

While his language was diplomatic, he was clearly concerned about being seen to target China.

A further contentious issue for the region has been Japan's plan to release radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.

In Seoul the Summit leaders agreed only that the ocean should be kept “free of environmental pollution by radioactive wastes” and on the need for international consultation and scientific assessment.

Korea initially strongly opposed Japan's  plan, but has recently softened its stance, at the same time as Yoon has been seeking to improve its relations with Japan.

PNG`s Prime Minister James Marape has also shifted on the issue, issuing a strong statement of support for Japan`s plan last week. 

Australia and New Zealand`s role in the PIF is also not straightforward.  While full members, their economic size and wealth, history of involvement in colonisation and ties to the West sometimes create tensions with other PIF members.

Sogavare, in declining to endorse the Seoul Summit declaration, underlined the Solomon Islands` stance of being “friends to all and enemy to none”. 

That line is also used by PNG leader Marape and other Pacific leaders – but not by New Zealand or Australia.

The sensitivity of their position was demonstrated by the decision to be represented in Seoul not by their leaders but in Australia`s case by Deputy PM Richard Marles, and for New Zealand by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta.

Representation at this level conveyed both countries` support for the PIF and the Summit, but without seeking to overshadow the leadership of Pacific islands themselves.

Coming just months after persuading Kiribati to return to the organisation after a spat over the PIF Secretary-General role, Pacific leaders find themselves with greater opportunity than perhaps ever before to take advantage of global competition for their influence.

They would prefer to use that influence in pursuit of the Pacific`s key priorities of climate change, health care and economic development.

Yet the Korean Summit underlines the challenges the PIF will face in promoting its own agenda while navigating the deepening tensions between China and the US.

Scholars Joanne Wallis and Anna Powles suggested last year that the PIF could look to emulate the highly successful ASEAN model established in 1967.

Like the Pacific today, Southeast Asia has for decades been the object of large power rivalry and attention. 

Like the Pacific, ASEAN contains significant differences among its members in – for example – types of government, religion, economic size and human rights.

Yet ASEAN has been mostly successful in maintaining regional stability and – during the Cold War - in fending off sustained efforts to draw members to one side or the other.

The principle of `ASEAN centrality` has become a core tenet of foreign policy for New Zealand, Australia and many regional partners including Korea and Japan. 

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A similar principle of `PIF centrality` could be applied in the Pacific.

That would require outsiders to accept that Pacific leaders themselves would drive the agenda for their region – but would also require Pacific leaders to manage internal differences.

There are similarities between ASEAN principles such as equality, non-interference in domestic affairs, consensus, unity in diversity and the `Pacific Way`.

Tarcisius Kabutaulaka of the University of Hawaiʻi has described the Pacific Way as “doing things in ways that are mutually respectful, inclusive, consultative, consensual, flexible and allow for compromise… reinventing itself under new contexts while simultaneously grounded to core values.”

There is a convergence here with the tirohanga Māori worldview being promoted by New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, which emphasises values such as manaaki, whanaunga, mahi tahi, kotahitanga, and kaitiaki.

In joining in the competition for influence, President Yoon is following through on his commitment to include the Pacific as part of his Indo-Pacific focus, and raising the stakes of Korea`s interest in the region. 

Pacific leaders may decry the notching up of geopolitical tensions in the region, but they will also be acutely aware of the opportunities it provides for their part of the world.

- Asia Media Centre