KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 262

Europe and the Indo-Pacific: Why South Korea is a Key Maritime Partner

King’s College London Professor
Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Europe is coming to the waters of the Indo-Pacific. In September, the EU launched its EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Earlier, France, Germany, and the Netherlands had issued their own, while the UK had announced a ‘tilt’ towards the region. And while Europe is realistic that it won’t become one of the main actors in the Indo-Pacific theatre, the EU and several European countries have the ambition to be seen as influential players. The presence of the British, Dutch, French, and German navies in the waters of the region in recent months suggested as much. For Europe understands that maritime security is crucial to any discussion about the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region.

Partners are central to Europe’s ambition to influence developments in the Indo-Pacific. The EU and European countries understand that working with partners is necessary for them to project power in the region. Among potential partners, South Korea stands out as one of the most crucial. It is a strategic partner for the EU. France is looking at boosting security ties with it. The navies of Germany and the UK have recently made port calls in Incheon and Busan, respectively. And the Indo-Pacific strategies of these European countries plus the Netherlands point out at Seoul as a key partner in the region.

Why is this the case? To begin with and as the EU’s top general Claudio Graziano indicated last April while visiting Seoul, South Korea is the only country with which the EU has the three framework agreements covering economics, politics, and security in place. Simply put, no other country has the framework to cooperate across the three domains. This is reflected in Brussels’ Indo-Pacific strategy, where South Korea is identified as a potential partner in everything from semiconductors to digital cooperation. It is also reflected in the EU’s landmark Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA) project, which lists South Korea as one of the key partners to action cooperation with.

Zooming in into maritime security, South Korea has a modern and strong navy that is only set to grow in size and firepower. The aircraft carrier commissioned by the Moon Jae-in administration would further enhance these capabilities. For the EU, it is attractive to have a partner that will not only talk the talk, but will also walk the walk. The more South Korea strengthens its naval capabilities, the more Europe will look at it as a partner of choice in the waters of the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Furthermore, Europe and South Korea have similar interests. They value freedom of navigation and respect for international law, particularly UNCLOS. They fear the threat that China’s military build-up poses to trade routes and supply chains. They strive to eliminate the risks that piracy poses to freighters sailing between Asia and Europe. And they believe in the value of multilateral coalitions to address these risks, particularly those involving like-minded partners.

For values is another reason why Europe sees South Korea as a natural partner in the maritime domain. Seoul is not only a partner, but a ‘like-minded’ partner. Not all countries believe in freedom of navigation or international law. Not all countries believe in the value of free trade and open markets. And not all countries believe in multilateralism. At a more fundamental level, not all countries are democracies with a military subordinate to civilian leaders. For Europe, cooperation with South Korea is made easier by these shared values.

The question is, where can Europe and South Korea cooperate? After all, the EU and European countries now look for actions from their partners rather than only words. South Korea, however, is already delivering on this front. Since 2017, the ROK Navy has been supporting the European Naval Force Somalia (EUNAVFOR) in the Gulf of Aden. Cooperation was already taking place beforehand, but the security cooperation framework agreement between Brussels and Seoul that entered into force in 2016 further solidified security relations.

The EU also sees cooperation in the Indian Ocean more broadly as a promising venue. Brussels’ Critical Maritime Routes Indian Project (CRIMARIO) aims, among others, at boosting information sharing and cooperation with partners to fight against piracy, human trafficking, or illegal fishing – as well as to uphold freedom of navigation. Currently in its second iteration, CRIMARIO’s geographical scope encompasses the waters of South and Southeast Asia. The synergies with South Korea’s New Southern Policy or any future Southeast policy are obvious.

In fact, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy has made the EU become even more specific. The strategy indicates that Brussels is considering establishing Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) in the region. In short, this is a tool for the navies of EU Member States present in a particular area to share awareness, analysis, and information. As EU Ambassador to Vietnam Giorgio Aliberti indicated in November of last year, a CMP could be deployed in the South China Sea. From a European perspective, any CMP in these waters would engage in cooperation with South Korea and other navies from like-minded partners.

Joint exercises is another area in which Europe believes it should be working together with South Korea. In fact, this is an area where cooperation has already increased. In July, the UK and South Korea participated in the Talisman Sabre 21 exercise – with France and Germany as observers. And in August, France, Germany, and South Korea joined other partners in the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise. As European navies become a more common feature in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, joint exercises with South Korea will become more frequent.

One area in which Europe would like to work closely with South Korea is capacity-building, particularly in South and Southeast Asia. This can involve trilateral naval exercises, the strengthening of technical capabilities, the development of human resources, or equipment transfers, among others. EUNAVFOR and the ROK Navy already do this. As a case in point, in October they carried out a joint naval exercise with the navy of Oman. With South Korea boosting cooperation in the maritime domain with countries such as the Philippines or Vietnam and the EU’s CRIMARIO project and Indo-Pacific strategy in place, there is clear scope to launch capacity-building activities in the region.

From a European perspective, all of the above would ideally involve both bilateral and multilateral approaches. The US, Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, or Vietnam are among the partners that the EU and different European countries believe they should be working with. And Brussels hopes that Seoul sees it the same way. In fact, the EU is even more ambitious in scope and has set its sight in being part of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+). In recent years, Seoul has been convening maritime confidence-building discussions within the ADMM+ framework. This is music to the ears of the EU if it can join the group.

From a European perspective, South Korea would also benefit from engaging with the EU and countries such as France, Germany, or the UK in the area of maritime security. To begin with, South Korea would benefit in the very specific, material ways just outlined. In addition, cooperation with Europe would support Seoul’s ambition to become an even more important global actor. In particular, it would allow South Korea to deliver on the provision of public goods and the contribution to international security that is expected from a strong middle power. Cooperation would allow South Korea to become more autonomous in the Sino-American rivalry as well, always acknowledging that Washington obviously remains a key security ally. Cooperation with Europe in the security domain would also allow South Korea to strengthen cooperation with like-minded partners, as Seoul has been doing through participation in the G7, the Supply China Resilience Summit held on the sidelines of the G20 summit, or the Summit for Democracy. Ultimately, Europe-South Korea maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific would benefit the two sides.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo is Professor of International Relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Brussels School of Governance. He is also Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident) with the Korea Chair at CSIS and Committee Member at CSCAP EU. He is the author of the book Shrimp to Whale: South Korea from the Forgotten War to BTS, to be published by Hurst in 2022.

  • The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.

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