A window of opportunity
The Korea-Asean special summit successfully ended Tuesday. President Moon Jae-in and leaders of 10 members of Asean adopted a joint vision for peace and prosperity and vowed to build a peaceful region, strengthen economic partnerships, expand environmental cooperation for sustainability and reinforce social and cultural partnership.
As a practical means to achieve the goals, the Moon administration proposed a simplification of visa issuance, a partnership for start-ups between Korea and Asean and the signing of a bilateral free trade agreement with each Asean member nation.
The 10 members of Asean have emerged as major partners for Korea in trade in particular. As evidenced in their annual 5 percent growth on average, Asean — with a population of 650 million and land 45 times larger than South Korea — has strong potential for future development. Over the last three decades, trade between Korea and Asean has increased by twentyfold, investment by seventyfold, and human exchanges over fourtyfold. Moon pledged to escalate strategic cooperation to the level of the four major powers, including the United States.
Asean can help Korea to substantially expand its overseas markets centered on America and China. Though Korea has become one of the 10 largest economies in the world, its heavy reliance on China for trade — as much as 25 percent — carries many risks.
The Korean economy is vulnerable to external risks such as a U.S.-China trade war, Beijing's economic retaliations against Korea for its deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile defense system, a slowed growth of China and Japan's exports restrictions on Korea. As seen in the rapid emergence of Vietnam as our important economic partner which could replace China, Korea needs to find a promising new market.
Korea's cooperation with Asean must expand to the diplomatic front beyond the economic realm. Seoul first should establish a win-win relationship with Asean countries by beefing up its investment in return for massive manpower and resources in the region. But all of that should be accompanied by diplomacy.
At the same time, Korea must augment its diplomatic leverage through reinforced cooperation with Asean given a harsh reality in which it is squeezed between China's Belt and Road Initiative and the U.S.'s Indo-Pacific strategy. We urge the government to do its best to turn its promises into actions instead of turning them into a feast of words.
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