Moon courts Mekong subregion in mainland tour

Moon courts Mekong subregion in mainland tour

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent tour of the Mekong subregion comes at a time when he is trying to expand trade while walking a delicate diplomacy line with his New Southern Policy.

In his early September 2019 tour, Moon visited Burma, Laos and Thailand. Since taking office in 2017, Moon’s travels have also included visits to India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. (Pictured: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, escorts South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, during an honor guard review during his September 2019 visit to Bangkok.)

The Mekong subregion, also known as the Greater Mekong, is part of the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia. It’s home to more than 300 million people and is an important, and fertile, food provider. In recent years, it has become the site for large-scale construction projects. Seoul “has long recognized the Mekong subregion as being strategically significant,” Dr. Prashanth Parameswaran wrote in the online magazine The Diplomat.

“Moon has attempted to boost South Korea’s engagement in the Mekong still further,” Parameswaran continued. “Efforts have been underway to that end since he took office, with the expected holding of an inaugural Mekong-Korea Summit in late November [2019].”

In the past two years, Moon has tried to expand Seoul’s diplomacy beyond the four regional powers — China, Japan, Russia and the United States — without alienating them. His vision is outlined in the New Southern Policy, which aims to elevate South Korea’s relations with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India to a level comparable to its relations with its four major partners. “That vision stands on the guiding principles of ‘3P’ — building a community of people, prosperity and peace,” the Korea Heraldnewspaper reported.

South Korea’s relationship with China, however, has been strained in recent years. The trade war between China and the United States has also affected South Korea’s export-driven economy. The two countries accounted for 39% of South Korea’s exports in 2018.

“Amid the intensifying U.S.-China conflicts, South Korea could use the New Southern Policy as a diplomatic tool to expand its space for diplomatic maneuvering and mitigate the impact of such a competition,” Choe Wong-gi of the Center for ASEAN-Indian studies told the Herald.

During Moon’s Mekong tour, he introduced a “Republic of Korea-Mekong Vision” to promote regional prosperity. The plan has three parts:

  • Sharing South Korea’s experiences in rural development and technological advances.
  • Advancing sustainability in such areas as forest conservation and water resources.
  • Promoting peace by advancing into such areas as culture, tourism and people-to-people exchanges.

The website reported that earlier in the tour, Moon had pledged to pursue “prosperity based on the sharing of experiences,” “sustainable prosperity” and “mutual prosperity and peace in East Asia.”

The tour is being seen as proof of Moon’s commitment to Southeast Asia and particularly the Mekong region, even at a time when his country is feeling push and pull from the world’s superpowers.