The following is a summary of key points provided by each panelist –
The relationship between Japan and South Korea in East Asia is comparable to the relationship between the UK and France in Europe. Both cases involve two middle powers with shared cultural and historical experiences, but with trouble current relations and divergent views on some major issues.
For example, in the Indo-Pacific, the UK has shown more desire to align with the US approach than France. The UK mostly aligns itself with the US strategy of hedging against hegemonic dominance in the region and supports a larger role for NATO against China. In contrast, France values maintaining independence and the ability to go it alone when needed. France desires to avoid a confrontational stance against China, criticizes AUKUS for militarized approaches to China, and believes NATO’s role in the Indo-Pacific should be limited to territorial defense. Also, France is more interested in multilateral approaches to issues, whereas the UK desires to establish its own strong presence in the Indo-Pacific, aligning its military behind the US.
Like the UK, Japan has become more integrated with the US stance over time, refusing to openly criticize the US on its policies in the Indo-Pacific.
South Korea is less vocal in its criticism of China; for example, it would not ban Chinese 5G technology despite US calls to do so and would not openly support protestors in Hong Kong or condemn alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Despite divergence in stances in the UK-France and Japan-South Korea relationships, ASEAN could offer opportunities to pursue common interests for both bilateral relationships. For example, all parties are interested in preserving rule of law, principles of national sovereignty, and economic security (i.e., making economic interests and practices more resilient to hegemonic rivalries). The issues could be ones where all middle powers have common interests, opening opportunities for dialogue and understanding between rivals.
The Mekong subregion of Southeast Asia offers possibilities for Japan-South Korea cooperation on socioeconomic development. The Mekong region has been somewhat left out of collaboration within ASEAN but is an important part of the region.
There is an existing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in the Mekong Region. China created the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation framework in 2016, and the US the Lower Mekong Initiative in 2009, with each framework excluding the other major power from cooperation. Recently, under the Biden administration, the US has revitalized cooperation between the US and Mekong countries.
In the region, US and Japanese interests are not perfectly congruent, and South Korea is trying to avoid getting entrapped by great power politics. This presents a potential point of convergence for South Korea. Japan started using ODA for socioeconomic development in Mekong countries in the 1980s-90s, but started to see a geopolitical threat from China in the 2000s. In response, it created the Japan-Mekong partnership framework, which incorporated some strategic visions, such rule of law, the notion of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and South China Sea issues, moving from just socioeconomic development to more of a political strategic framework. South Korea, in contrast, created the Mekong-ROK partnership in 2011, to facilitate development projects funded by South Korea. This partnership was strengthened under President Moon’s New Southern Policy but included no strategic agenda. Despite Japan’s move towards a more strategic perspective on ODA, the substance of both countries’ approaches to the region is socioeconomic development. This means there is still overlap in goals and potential for Japan and Korea to promote collaboration.
Due to the potential for politicization, it would be difficult to coordinate development policy through bilateral dialogue between Japan and South Korea. However, the two countries could use existing frameworks, such as ASEAN +3 and the East Asia Summit, to facilitate such coordination. Southeast Asian states want to put Mekong on the ASEAN agenda, and so are likely to be amenable to a Japan-Korea project. Information sharing through ASEAN +3, or the East Asia Summit, which also involves the US, Australia, and India, could lead to a coordinated framework for development in the Mekong region while avoiding geopolitical tensions.