Strengthening the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Cooperation between South Korea and Europe

Strategic Insight 019/2023

Jihoon Yu

06 July 2023

Strengthening the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Cooperation between South Korea and Europe

As the Indo-Pacific region gains increasing importance in the global economy, there is a growing recognition of the significance of its maritime security environment, which directly impacts the stability of global supply chains. Serving as a crucial hub for major maritime transportation routes, the region holds substantial strategic value in terms of economic and military security.

However, in recent years, the Indo-Pacific maritime security environment has faced heightened instability, largely due to the escalating strategic competition between the United States and China across multiple dimensions. This competition has been further intensified by the prolonged Ukraine crisis and resulting tensions between states in the liberal democratic and authoritarian camps.

In response to these developments, there is a notable focus on maritime security within the Indo-Pacific strategies pursued by countries within and outside the region. Recognising the importance of a secure maritime environment in terms of their military and economic interests, many states are actively making efforts to contribute to maintaining a stable maritime security order.

Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Environment

The intensifying rivalry between Washington and Beijing has been a key factor which contributes to the growing instability in the Indo-Pacific region. As major global powers, both the United States and China are actively vying for control and influence in the maritime domain within the region. China, in particular, is pursuing an assertive maritime strategy and investing heavily in its naval capabilities, recognising the pivotal role of maritime power in attaining global preeminence.

China’s rise as an economic powerhouse can be attributed, to some extent, to its adeptness in maritime affairs. Through significant advancements in its naval capabilities, China has gained the capacity to navigate crucial maritime routes that are indispensable for international trade. The nation’s heavy reliance on these routes to fuel its economic growth serves as a compelling impetus for its ongoing endeavours to bolster its maritime strength.

In response to China’s expanding reach and to safeguard its own dominance in regional waters, the United States has been reorienting its naval focus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific. Washington has explicitly voiced its determination to counter China’s pursuit of maritime hegemony, and it is actively formulating major defence and military strategies with a specific emphasis on addressing the Chinese threat.

The competition for maritime supremacy between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific can be seen as one facet of their wider strategic rivalry. Given the presence of disputed waters, notably the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, this confrontation carries the potential for escalation into armed conflict.

In addition to the competition between major powers, the Indo-Pacific region is confronted with a growing array of existing and potential threats. North Korea, for example, is prioritising the enhancement of its unconventional capabilities as a means to overcome economic challenges and compensate for its comparatively inferior military strength relative to neighbouring nations. Of particular concern is the development of its submarine capabilities, which presents a highly potent threat. The acquisition of the capacity to launch a nuclear-armed ballistic missile from a submarine would profoundly disrupt the regional balance of power. The destabilising impact on regional stability would be further magnified if North Korea manages to advance its tactical nuclear capabilities, increasing the likelihood and versatility of nuclear weapon deployment.

Furthermore, major powers in the Indo-Pacific are expanding their naval forces to extend their influence across maritime domains, intensifying competition and leading to frequent friction over disputed maritime territories. This exacerbates the already precarious nature of the Indo-Pacific’s maritime security environment.

Additionally, the region is grappling with the rise of transnational threats such as terrorism, piracy, and maritime disasters or accidents, further complicating the already intricate landscape of Indo-Pacific maritime security.

European States’ Engagement in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security 

As the awareness of the importance of Indo-Pacific maritime security grows, a number of countries, particularly European states with direct interests in the region’s maritime security, have expressed their willingness to engage with the area. These states include France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the Netherlands, which have relatively strong naval power in Europe.

While European states hold different levels of interest and positions regarding the Indo-Pacific, their perspectives are gradually aligning due to their shared identity as maritime nations or sea powers, and their common understanding of the significance of maritime security.

European states acknowledge the necessity of establishing and preserving stable conditions for the utilisation of major maritime trade routes. They recognise that these routes are critical for maintaining global supply chains and ensuring Europe’s economic security. This recognition is evident in their respective national and EU-level strategies concerning the Indo-Pacific.

European states are expected to increase their involvement in the region and extend their influence to uphold maritime order in the Indo-Pacific. In particular, they are leaning towards participating in U.S.-led maritime security cooperation such as joint naval exercises, maritime domain awareness, information sharing, and capacity building in the region. This inclination stems from concerns about China’s impact on maritime order and the realisation of the importance of solidarity with Washington to safeguard European security, especially in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.

Furthermore, European states are anticipated to intensify their efforts to enhance cooperation with Asian countries facing similar circumstances. Although these partnerships are still in their early stages, ongoing initiatives are being undertaken to strengthen ties with major regional states, including South Korea.

Maritime security cooperation is being pursued both at the national level and within the framework of the European Union. However, the effectiveness and continuity of these endeavours are likely to rely on individual states with relatively greater capabilities, despite being initiated at a pan-European level. This is due to variations in the internal and external security environments and capabilities among member states.

To maximise effectiveness, European states will need to strategically consider potential connections with Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and take various factors related to China into account. By doing so, they can enhance their engagement in the region and contribute to maintaining a secure and stable maritime environment in the Indo-Pacific.

Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Cooperation between South Korea and Europe 

The security of the Indo-Pacific region holds immense significance for South Korea, as the country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens heavily rely on the oceans. Therefore, it is crucial for Seoul to actively expand its engagement in maintaining maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, protecting its maritime sovereignty, and safeguarding its core interests at sea. However, achieving these goals necessitates a strategic approach that takes into account South Korea’s internal and external security environments.

Establishing a framework for multilateral diplomacy becomes imperative, prompting South Korea to strengthen its cooperation with both regional and non-regional states. This approach would create favourable conditions for Seoul to broaden its role and secure the strategic space required to advance its national interests. As a middle power situated between the strategic rivalry of the United States and China, engaging in a multilateral platform allows for greater flexibility in pursuing its own national interests.

In pursuit of this objective, it is essential for South Korea to explore comprehensive avenues of collaboration with like-minded states that share a commitment to upholding maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Enhancing cooperation with European states, which have expressed their willingness to actively engage in the region, takes on particular importance. States sharing similar positions provide a higher likelihood of forging solidarity, cooperation, and effectively pursuing shared values and goals.

To collaborate effectively with Europe, Seoul must carefully assess the extent and level of cooperation based on the differing perceptions and capabilities of each European state in pursuing maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, as well as South Korea’s unique regional environment. Enhancing connectivity with the ROK-U.S. maritime security cooperation should also be considered to achieve greater synergy.

Presently, the level of cooperation between Seoul and Europe on maritime security remains insufficient. While the participation of the South Korean Navy in the European Union’s maritime security operations is a positive step, efforts should be made to expand the areas of cooperation.

Furthermore, effective maritime cooperation hinges on South Korea’s ability to enhance its naval capabilities, thus broadening the foundation and opportunities for cooperation with regional players, including Europe. Despite being a maritime nation due to its geopolitical circumstances and economic disposition, there is a lack of awareness in South Korea regarding the importance of maritime security. The disproportionate focus on ground forces as a response to the North Korean threat has overshadowed the significance of maritime security and the imperative for capacity building. The government must demonstrate unwavering determination and provide consistent support from a medium-to-long-term national security perspective, recognising that strengthening capacity in maritime security requires significant time and commitment.

The South Korean government is currently in the process of developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. To enhance coordination between the United States and European states, whose plans emphasise maritime security, Seoul’s roadmap should outline detailed and comprehensive strategies to ensure and enhance freedom and stability in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Commander Jihoon Yu is a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. He earned his MA in National Security Affairs from U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and Ph.D. in Political Science from Syracuse University. The views expressed here are his own.

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