Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Seoul’s Middle-Power Turn in Samarkand? Park Geun-hye’s recent trip to Central Asia was a great deal more than it seemed.


President Xi Jinping of China arrived last Thursday for his first state visit to South Korea. Pundits were quick to claim that the visit demonstrates Beijing’s desire to “unsettle” one of America’s most important alliances in the region. From an analyst’s perspective, however, rather than looking at Beijing’s actions, it may be wiser to focus on Seoul’s. The clearest indication of Seoul’s position lies not in Xi’s visit to Seoul, but in South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s visit to Samarkand.
Park visited Central Asia June 16-22, stopping in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. On the surface, the trip appeared mundane. Indeed, it almost seemed a revival of the previous Lee Myung-Bak administration’s unrelenting “resource diplomacy.” In resources, Central Asia and South Korea seem like the perfect match: Central Asia is rich in resources but lacks capital, as well as infrastructure and technological capacity. South Korea is poor in resources, but has capital, as well as infrastructure expertise and technological capacity. Central Asian states are seeking to diversify away from their dependence on the Russian and Chinese export and capital markets, while South Korea is seeking to diversify away from its energy dependence on Middle-East energy markets. Resource diplomacy is the default role of South Korea in Central Asia.
Korean media reporting on the visit stayed close to the letter of presidential office press releases, highlighting the mundane facts. The press detailed presidential visits to the diaspora community: descendants of Koreans living in the Russian Far East border areas who were exiled by Stalin in the lead up to the Second World War. Now numbering approximately 500,000 across Central Asia, they provided an early cultural and commercial link between South Korea and Central Asia, despite being regarded as exemplars of Russification and model Soviet citizens before the Soviet collapse and having little interest in far-off Korea after the collapse.
The press also detailed presidential visits to infrastructure and resource projects. This included South Korean participation in the Kandym Bukhara Gas Field project in Uzbekistan; construction of a coal fired power station in Kazakhstan; the construction of a gas-chemical plant and gas-to-fuel refinery in Turkmenistan; as well as a vast number of other projects both underway and planned. If the presidential press releases had stopped here, it would have just been another successful, albeit mundane, jaunt in the name of resource diplomacy.
Importantly, however, the press releases from the presidential office and subsequent media reporting focused on another aspect of the trip: the Eurasia Initiative. This was highlighted during Park’s visit to the ancient city of Samarkand, a stopover on the Silk Road, the 1400-year-old trade route connecting Europe to Asia.
The Eurasia Initiative is an ambitious plan to link Europe and Asia by connecting transportation, logistics, trade and energy infrastructure networks across the Eurasian continent. Launching the initiative in October 2013, Park spoke of the reinvigoration of the Silk Road – the building of a new Silk Road, a logistics network that would stretch from London to Busan replacing current seaborne transportation of 45 days with overland transportation of 14 days.
Winning Central Asian support for the Eurasia initiative was an important step in further convincing China and Russia of the value of the Eurasia Initiative. Herein lies the real aim behind the Eurasia Initiative. The initiative will build momentum from Europe, through Central Asia, China and Russia to open up North Korea. As South Korea’s initiative grows, and the potential benefits become clearer, the new Silk Road would aid in strengthening the resolve in China and Russia to encourage North Korea to behave more responsibly and to better reflect regionally acceptable norms. The Eurasia Initiative has medium to long-term strategic implications.

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