South Korean Navy special forces in a military drill re-named 'East Sea territory defence training' at the easternmost islets of Dokdo. Photo: AFP / Handout

South Korea has long stood out as a geopolitical anomaly – a rising power curiously punching well below its weight. A long-time US treaty ally, the Northeast Asian nation has at the same time cultivated extremely cordial, if not at times subservient, relations with neighboring China, a top trading partner.

Despite being a global economic dynamo and a leading military equipment exporter, South Korea has remained largely marginal in shaping the geopolitical landscape in its own Asian neighborhood.

Outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s chief foreign policy focus, if not obsession, has been his largely ineffectual engagement with North Korea, which has shown little interest in actual disarmament and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

But the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the election of new conservative leadership in Seoul could reset South Korea’s place in the broader Indo-Pacific geopolitical landscape.

On one hand, India’s commitment to maintaining robust ties with Russia has driven a wedge within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping, better known as the Quad, which brings the US, Japan, Australia and India under one China-focused security umbrella.

Despite holding a cordial high-level meeting with top Indian officials earlier this month, the Biden administration has warned New Delhi against any efforts that could undermine the West’s sanctions against Russia.

During their recent visit to Kiev, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made it clear that America’s current strategy is no less than full containment of Russia. 

Top Indian officials, meanwhile, have openly questioned both America’s moral ascendancy and the feasibility of reducing the South Asian country’s Russian arms and energy imports.

US President Joseph Biden has fired back by mentioning India’s “own problems” with human rights and democracy, while the Pentagon has indicated potential sanctions if New Delhi proceeds with the procurement of Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defense system.

The resurfacing of structural frictions in US-India relations has paved the way for the potential rise of alternative Quads in the Indo-Pacific.

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force conducts Malabar 21 – an inter-nation exercise with the Indian Navy, US Navy and Royal Australian Navy – to improve tactical skills and further strengthen QUAD navies. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

As a vibrant democracy with a burgeoning industrial-military complex, South Korea is a key player in the broad US-led effort at preserving a rules-based order in the region. In the coming years, South Korea will likely seek a more prominent role in emerging “Quad Plus” and “G7 Plus” strategic groupings.

Incoming South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has declared his willingness to “positively review joining” an expanded Quad, just as Korea becomes a regular guest in expanded G7 gatherings.

To be sure, India, Asia’s second-most populous nation, will likely remain as a major strategic focus for the West for the foreseeable future.

During the fourth US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue earlier this month, Biden spoke with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and both sides vowed to pursue comprehensive strategic cooperation, dispelling certain speculation of a full-blown rupture in relations.

India has also held high-level dialogue with other Western powers, including the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently meeting Modi, as well as the European Union, with President Ursula Von der Leyen recently visiting New Delhi for the annual Raisina Dialogue as a chief guest.

Nevertheless, India’s structural tensions with the West aren’t going away anytime soon. India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has made it clear that India would maintain its robust defense relations with Russia as a matter of national security.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has echoed a similar statement, arguing “India’s approach should be guided by our national beliefs and values, by our national interest, and by our national strategy.” 

Earlier, the outspoken Indian diplomat pushed back against statements by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who raised concern over “a rise in human rights abuses” in India.

In response, Jaishankar declared “India has its own problems” vis-à-vis the human rights situation in the US, especially amid the spike in anti-Asian racism. He also lashed out at US-based groups’ criticism of India’s democratic regression under the Modi regime.

A close relationship based on strategic needs. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images

The ongoing diplomatic tit-for-tat between India and America has refocused attention on South Korea, which has signaled its willingness to become a key player in regional affairs. 

“This is a moment of change and flux in international politics. It calls for clarity and boldness, and for a commitment to principles,” argued Korea’s president-elect Yoon Suk-Yeol just a month before his election.

Describing his country as a “global pivotal state,” the incoming Korean leader has vowed to help like-minded powers, especially the US, jointly advance “freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.”

In a clear rebuke of outgoing president Moon, he made it clear that while “[d]ealing with North Korea is an important task for any South Korean government…it should not represent the whole of Seoul’s diplomacy.”

Crucially, the incoming Korean president has rebuked his predecessor’s “reluctance to take a firm stand on a number of issues that have roiled the relationship between Washington and Beijing,” thus creating “an impression that South Korea has been tilting toward China and away from its longtime ally, the United States.”

Instead, the president-elect argues, his country should abandon “timidity” and its “conspicuously silent” stance vis-à-vis authoritarian powers in favor of “a leadership role” on key international issues, including climate change and Covid-19 pandemic.

Yoon has indicated his preference for hosting advanced American weaponry, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, to enhance his country’s deterrence capabilities.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has very different ideas about regional military issues than his predecessor. Photo: Tasnim News Agency

He has also stated his commitment to a “new era of cooperation” with China, which is based on mutual respect rather than subservience. The values-based, Sino-skeptic foreign policy position of South Korea’s incoming president is highly consequential, precisely because of the Asian country’s stealthy emergence as a major player in global defense markets.

South Korea not only hosts large US bases and weapons systems, but it also boasts massive armed forces with a $46 billion budget and a world-class defense export industry. The country’s defense exports reached a record-high of $7 billion last year, a figure that is expected to rise to $10 billion this year.

Korea’s defense industry powerhouses of LIG Nex1 Co., Hanwha and Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. (KAI) have secured major contracts with a broad network of clients from Europe to the Middle East to Australia.

Combining high-tech with favorable prices and terms of payment, Korea has rapidly emerged as a favorite defense and strategic partner among Southeast Asian countries, too.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Korea is the 7th largest supplier of defense equipment in the region. In particular, South Korea has “supplied 2 submarines, 5 AALS and 16 trainer/combat aircraft to Indonesia, 12 combat aircraft to the Philippines, and 1 frigate and 4 trainer/combat aircraft to Thailand.”

After a few false starts, South Korea’s defense industry picked up steam in the early-2010s, when the country finalized a $400 million FA-50 fighter jet (the combat variant of the T-50) deal with the Philippines.

Soon, other tactical weapons followed, with Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering selling six Chang Bogo-class diesel-electric attack submarines to Indonesia, and Hyundai Heavy Industries selling two Jose Rizal-class frigates to the Philippines. Aside from the Philippines, South Korea also successfully sold T-50 jet trainers to Indonesia and Thailand.

The crown jewel of South Korea’s burgeoning defense industry is the much-vaunted 4.5 generation fighter, the KF-2, a joint venture between Seoul and Jakarta, which holds a 20% stake in the $5.2 billion project. Up to 65% of the KF-21 critical technology and equipment are homegrown, cementing South Korea’s position in an exclusive club of nations capable of producing state-of-the-art fighter jets.

Another highly successful Korean export has been Hanwha’s K9 self-propelled gun. This 155mm, armored howitzer has been sold to multiple NATO nations including Estonia, Finland, Norway, Poland and Turkey, as well as Australia.

In many ways, South Korea is reaping the benefits of long-term investments in science and technology, having spent more on research and development as a percentage of its GDP than almost all Western countries. South Korea’s defense industry has also benefited from generous government support and high-tech cooperation with Western partners.

“A new era of independent defense has begun, and it’s a historic milestone in the development of the [South Korean] aviation industry,” said President Moon during the public unveiling of the KF-21, nicknamed Boramae (“young hawk trained for hunting”), project last year at the Korea Aerospace Industries in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang province.

The Asian power is expected to complete as many as nine prototypes before the end of this year, with as many as 40 jets expected to be deployed by 2028 and 120 by 2032. Versatile and economic, the prized Korean fighter jet is highly appealing among developing countries, especially in Southeast Asia.

The KF-21 fighter jet is the crown jewel of South Korea’s air force. Photo: Screengrab / CNN

Indonesia, a stakeholder in the KF-21 projects, as well as fellow US treaty allies the Philippines, which already operates Korean-made FA-50 fighters, and Thailand are expected to be among the first major customers. However, while Indonesia is a partner in South Korea’s warplane development projects, Seoul has been discomfited by Jakarta’s non-payments.

Under Yoon, South Korea will likely leverage its robust defense industry and modern armed forces to play a greater role in the region in tandem with the US and other key allies.

Over the coming years, South Korea, notorious for its low-key foreign policy, could emerge as an independent force to reckon with as well as a key player in the US-led integrated deterrence strategy in the Indo-Pacific aimed at containing China.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at Richeydarian