US President Donald Trump's trade policies may cause big problems for South Korea's President Moon Jae-in. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in with Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

South Korea, in the wake of a new agreement with China on THAAD, has publicly aired its reluctance to use the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” label for the region.

Senior officials for South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Thursday that Korea needs to study the new US foreign policy term — “Indo-Pacific” — before publicly endorsing it, according to a story in Korea JoongAng Daily.

US officials have repeatedly used the term “Indo-Pacific” to refer to the Asia-Pacific region in a lead up to and during Trump’s 12-day visit to Asian nations which began last weekend. The reference partly reflects the promotion of an “Indo-Pacific” strategy promoted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe’s idea focuses on creating a defensive alignment that includes the US, Japan, India, and possibly Australia to contain China.

India’s President Narendra Modi is likewise keen on moving closer to the US and Japan in forging such an arrangement to offset China in the region.

Korea in awkward position

But Seoul’s desire to duck using the geopolitically loaded US term faces other complications. JoongAng noted that a joint statement from the summit between President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump on Tuesday specifically said the Korea-US alliance was helping to ensure Washington’s policy in the region.

“President Trump highlighted that the United States-Republic of Korea alliance, built upon mutual trust and shared values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, remains a linchpin for security, stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” according to the joint statement, released on Wednesday night.

The terminology of the joint statement was seemingly rebutted about 15 hours later by Kim Hyun-chul, an economic adviser to Moon, JoongAng reported.

“Japan is trying to build the Indo-Pacific line to build a diplomatic link of Japan, Australia, India and the United States, but we don’t have to join it,” Kim said during a press briefing in Jakarta. Kim was accompanying Moon on a presidential visit to the Southeast Asian nation.

South Korea recently soothed China by publicly stating that it will not approve further deployments of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system and indicating that it will not participate in a US-led strategic missile defense system. It has also rebuffed the notion of a South Korean-US-Japan trilateral military alliance.

Analysts say this is strong signal that Seoul wants to at least symbolically distance itself from a US-led strategy of containing China.

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