COVID-19 Reinforces South Korea’s Southern Pivot

30 September 2020 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

South Korean Deputy Minister for Political Affairs Kim Gunn concluded a four-day visit to Jakarta on 29 September as South Korea gradually resumes face-to-face diplomacy after the COVID-19 outbreak. The visit was part of a week-long tour of South-East Asia, which included a three-day visit to Singapore. The visit to Jakarta was preceded by a telephone conversation between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her South Korean counterpart, during which they discussed co-operation in national defence and security as well as co-operation in post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

Comment

While there has yet to be a press release regarding the South Korean Minister’s visit to Jakarta, given the timing, it is likely that COVID-19 was the primary topic of discussion. In Singapore, both sides discussed strategies to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, the post-COVID-19 economic recovery and equitable access to vaccines while promoting vaccine multilateralism. In the past months, Indonesia has also pushed for multilateral initiatives to ensure that a vaccine would be affordable and accessible to all countries.

As the pandemic has hit especially hard in Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, it has presented South Korea the opportunity to reinforce its pivot to Southeast Asia under the New Southern Policy (NSP) which was initially launched in November 2017. The NSP emphasises co-operation with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has pursued a range of projects under three pillars: people, prosperity and peace. The broad scope of that policy, however, has led to criticisms that it lacks a clear priority with resultant low levels of planning and poor implementation of projects.

Given that South Korea has been mostly successful in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Seoul’s experiences and expertise could be especially valuable to countries such as Indonesia, where daily infections peaked at 4,823 on 25 September. As Sungil Kwak from the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy points out, South Korea has an opportunity to develop practical projects with Indonesia that strengthen quarantine capabilities, train experts and share technologies related to prevention measures.

Currently, many ASEAN members primarily see South Korea as an economic partner. In the case of Indonesia, the government perceives Seoul for the most part as a crucial source of investment for its infrastructure projects. The success of South Korea’s joint defence projects with Indonesia under the NSP has been mixed. In April 2019, Indonesia launched its third Nagapasa-class submarine (Type 209/1400), which was locally manufactured under a technology transfer agreement with South Korean ship builder Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering. That contract, which would see another batch of three submarines made by 2026, is reportedly being reconsidered for a Turkish-built version of the Reis Type 214 conventional attack submarine due to financial concerns. Additionally, a troubled joint-development project for jet fighters is also set to be renegotiated after Indonesia failed to pay its share of development costs.

Using the pandemic as a means to implement practical projects could go a long way towards raising South Korea’s status as a strategic partner in Southeast Asia. In the case of Indonesia, it could also lay the foundation for future co-operative projects and eventually facilitate the smoother execution of larger joint development projects that have struggled in the past.

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