This week in Busan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) is organizing two important international events, the commemorative summit with ASEAN to celebrate their 30th anniversary of dialogue partnership and the first Mekong-Korea Summit.
Under the New Southern Policy, the ROK has invested significant efforts and resources to connect itself with Southeast Asia, at both multilateral and bilateral levels.
The ROK has conducted an intermediate review of the New Southern Policy, formally launched in November 2017, and based on which the New Southern Policy 2.0 for new projects from 2020 will be kickstarted.
The New Southern Policy aims to put ASEAN as one of key strategic partners on par with the United States, China, Russia and Japan. The philosophy behind the policy is 3Ps which are People, Prosperity and Peace.
Building a people-centred regional community is the priority followed by prosperity which refers to the creation of a foundation of economic cooperation to support a mutually beneficial and future-oriented community, and peace which refers to the promotion of a culture of dialogue and peace, sustaining political and strategic trust building.
Mutual trust and confidence, and bilateral cooperation and partnership has enhanced over the past thirty years. The ROK is regarded as one of the most dynamic dialogue partners of ASEAN. The ROK means what it says- it is better than some other dialogue partners that words do not match with deeds.
Since the establishment of their Sectoral Dialogue Partnership in 1989, ASEAN and the ROK have closely cooperated on many areas. The relationship was upgraded to strategic partnership in 2010.
Economic cooperation is quite remarkable. As of 2018, trade between the ROK and ASEAN amounted to $159.74 billion ($100.11 billion in exports and $59.63 billion in imports), which makes the region Korea’s second-largest trading partner.
The ROK has actively involved in poverty reduction in Southeast Asia. From 1987 to 2017, Korea extended $1,823 million in ODA grants and $2,605 million in loans to ASEAN countries (on a cumulative basis as of 2017).
In addition, Korea has established the ASEAN-Korea Cooperation Fund to further strengthen cooperation in areas including people-to-people exchanges, trade and investment, and technology transfers.
ASEAN and the ROK can further strengthen their ties through upgrading their FTA, cooperation on smart cities and innovation, digital infrastructure development and connectivity, and cultural cooperation.
Innovation diplomacy is one of strengths and advantages of the ROK in its engagement with ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries as the innovation ecosystem in the ROK is well grounded.
Concerning the first Mekong-Korea Summit, a Han River-Mekong River declaration will be issued to further promote ties and knowledge exchange between the ROK and the Mekong countries.
The Mekong River is at a tipping point as the race to build hydropower dams along the mainstream of the river is threatening the local livelihood and ecosystem of the Mekong River Basin if there is no proper cross-boundary social and environmental impact assessment before permitting the dams to be built.
The ROK can offer knowledge and technology to sustainably and inclusive govern the mighty Mekong River as well as to mitigate the risks stemming from climate change and hydropower dams.
A more proactive role of the ROK in ASEAN and the Mekong Region contributes regional peace and development. Cambodia in particular expects that the ROK could do more to narrow the development gap within the region and provide novel solutions to address emerging regional issues such as digital literacy, climate change, energy security, and water resource management.
The ROK is a benign middle power that can help Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN to effectively manage and balance their external relations with the two competing powers, China and the United States.
The middle powers like the ROK play a critical role in maintaining regional stability through the promotion of an open, inclusive and effective multilateralism and rules-based international order.
The ROK can also support a people-centred regional community building by enabling the people to fairly benefit from regional economic integration and reap the opportunities from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In this regard, promoting an inclusive and people-centered digital economy should be one the key cooperation areas under the New Southern Policy 2.0.
Chheang Vannarith is President of Phnom Penh-based Asian Vision Institute (AVI).