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[Special contribution article 1] Thoughts on a Shift in the Eurasian Strategic Landscape and Korea’s Advance toward Central Asia

KF Features > [Special contribution article 1] Thoughts on a Shift in the Eurasian Strategic Landscape and Korea’s Advance toward Central Asia
[Special contribution article 1] Thoughts on a Shift in the Eurasian Strategic Landscape and Korea’s Advance toward Central Asia

Central Asia is geographically situated at the heart of the Eurasian continent and has historically served as a bridge between East Asia and Europe. Moreover, Central Asia has exhibited resiliency throughout its long history, while developing unique cultural and religious heritage. That said, the region is vulnerable, as evidenced by its struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic. The geopolitical and economic competition between the US, China, Japan, and Russia that affects Eurasia has continued despite the pandemic. In particular, these countries’ keen interest in Central Asia and their efforts to expand their presence in the region provide policy implications for Korea, which seeks to enter the region in search of collaboration.

In the modern history of international politics, Eurasia has been a key factor in determining the dynamics of the international political system. The Eurasian strategic landscape drives changes in the system and at the same time exhibits certain patterns that result from such changes. Amid the strategic competition between the US and China, energy security, climate change, the human rights of ethnic minorities, and resource nationalism have emerged as key agenda points in the international community, fueling the dichotomy between continental and maritime powers. At the same time, along with Central Asian countries, neighboring countries such as India, Turkey, Mongolia, and Ukraine have assumed an increasingly important role as buffer zones. Against this backdrop, all interested parties, such as the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, the five Central Asian countries, Turkey, and Mongolia, align themselves with each other according to their strategic interests. The Eurasian continent is witnessing the unfolding of a new “Great Game.” Such examples include China’s competition with the US and Japan, Russia’s Great Eurasian Partnership and New Eastern Policy, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), and the rivalry among G7+3, the BRICS Group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This geopolitical strategic parallel is depicted as a “necklace of diamonds” compared to a “ of pearls.” Eurasia has a renewed importance from a geopolitical and geo-strategical perspective. With the rise of energy security, the Eurasian region is being viewed as the “blue ocean” of the future.

Recent developments in the Eurasian strategic landscape raise the need to take the following into consideration when shaping Korea’s strategies toward Central Asia. First of all, it is critical to recognize Eurasia’s potential and importance and establish and implement Eurasian strategies more systematically. This would help develop an essential and fundamental framework for Korea’s national strategy to tap into “blue ocean” opportunities in the 21st century. Second, it should be noted that economy and culture take precedence over politics and diplomacy in Eurasia. Accordingly, it is imperative to set strategies and a pragmatic agenda, rather than placing excessive focus on political and natural resource issues. Investment safety instruments by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in addition to other international organizations’ models would provide good points of reference when advancing into Central Asia. The establishment of institutional frameworks is instrumental to ensure the proper function of safety nets for financial and investment operations. Third, a strategic decision with a selective focus is needed. When an MOU is entered, cultural and economic issues should be prioritized over political agendas. In addition, it is recommended to follow up on existing MOUs with close oversight from a control tower. Fourth, concrete measures to share Korea’s know-how in investment and technology should be devised. Making or expanding equity investments in local entities is essential in transferring Korea’s know-how in the financial sector or enabling project financing. Departing from promoting Korean culture from a unilateral standpoint, it would be helpful to expand engagement with Central Asian communities in an open way that facilitates the self-development of local people through education and student exchange. Fifth, it is imperative to positively brand Korea’s national image in Central Asia and the Eurasian region, seeing these regions as the destination of Korea’s contribution and prestige diplomacy. Korea’s entry or approach to Central Asia has resulted in some achievements, but the progress so far has been rather superficial, as Korea embarked upon a unilateral and hopeful pursuit of partnership in the region without sociocultural understanding. Accordingly, it is crucial to understand nomadic communities and recognize the importance of having medium- and long-term horizons toward these regions.

This article looks into more specific strategies and directions for Korea’s advance into Eurasia. First, economic and trade collaboration need to be expanded as a way to lay the groundwork for Korea’s entry into “blue ocean” markets. That is, consideration should be given to the region’s high level of interest in Korea’s history of achieving economic growth, experience in overcoming crises, and strategic know-how in national development. When pursuing economic and trade cooperation, Korea should recognize the potential of Eurasia as a new market for Korean products, services, and investors and as a beachhead to expand economic partnership to the rest of the world. One way to do so is to propose and share economic development models for Central Asia by customizing economic collaboration plans with respective Central Asian countries in the context of addressing global issues such as a financial crises and climate change. For example, Kazakhstan’s interests in industry diversification such as mechanization, agricultural development, and energy resources deserve attention. In addition, it is necessary to pursue strategies to promote Korea’s soft powers such as information technologies, green growth, and the Korean culture wave. Korea’s approach to the Eurasian region can be branded in the name of the “green road” and green growth.

Second, building knowledge infrastructure about countries in the Eurasian region is imperative. Korea’s lack of experiences with and information about the region highlights the need to develop an appropriate database. To do so, government-led systematic measures should be put in place to foster experts, conduct joint research projects involving the public, industry, and academia, and support related academic conventions. It is essential to share information and provide related support by building a database on industrial technologies, operating a technology collaboration community, sharing information, and seconding technology collaboration teams to the Eurasian region.

Third, entry strategies should be differentiated to reflect the characteristics of countries and regions. An approach to Eurasia needs to be customized to account for the highly heterogeneous nature of the region and the heritage and traditions that the countries have formed over the course of history. An understanding of country-specific identity and individuality, subregional dynamics, and the Islamic world should be taken into comprehensive consideration. Based on historical background, it is also reasonable to divide the region into three clusters: Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (Turco-Persian assimilation), Tajikistan (Persian culture), and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (the Turkic nomadic culture).

Fourth, how major powers align their strategies between Eurasia and Northeast Asia is worth noting. Eurasia is widely seen as the stage for a new Great Game between key actors of international politics, i.e., the US, Russia, China, and Japan. Accordingly, developments in their strategic stances and interactions require close monitoring. Furthermore, persistent political turmoil and uncertainties in some countries in the region call for a cautious approach from a military and security perspective.

Fifth, it is essential to enhance ties with various multilateral cooperation bodies operating in the region. Pursuing Korea’s advance toward the region in line with the creation of an economic and security union in Northeast Asia should be the right path forward.

Sixth, it is important to improve the status of Koreans living abroad and globally promote Korean culture as part of efforts to broaden a global network of Korean people. Given that Eurasia has a large Korean diaspora, it is desirable to show greater interest and support for a global diaspora of ethnic Koreans and provide education and cultural materials. In this regard, the Korean government should continue to implement policies supporting ethnic Koreans, or Koryo-saram, by granting preferential treatment in the allocation of industrial trainee slots, increasing access to Korean language programs, helping the establishment of job training centers through the official development assistance (ODA) program of the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), and expanding homecoming or visiting student programs for Koryo-saram.

Notably, KOICA is well positioned to identify promising talent to become high-ranking officials in countries in the Eurasian region and expand support through ODA projects. That said, it should be noted that the region has been experiencing uncertainties amid a serial spread of democracy; “oriental” democracy; ethnic, religious, and territorial conflicts; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); terrorism; drug smuggling, refugee crises; poverty; and civil turmoil.

Last but not least, it is important to a virtuous cycle of promoting peace and trust in Northeast Asia through Eurasian partnership. As part of efforts to build a win-win partnership with the Eurasian region, Korea should forge strategic ties with the economies in the Northern and Southern hemispheres and push ahead with collaborations with Central Asia and Russia in diverse areas such as energy, logistics, transportation, and multi-lateral security. Considering the importance of Eurasia, Korea should take advantage of Russia’s strategic presence with the EU, ASEAN, and Southwest Asian countries to facilitate its expansion to Central Asia and pave the way to the Arctic. The suggestions above include measures that have already been implemented or may sound like textbook examples. That said, I expect these measures will help Korea advance toward Eurasia and achieve collaboration with the region during a time when uncertainties are paramount amid changes in the international order and environments.

Dr. Suh Dong-joo Hallym University of Graduate Studies


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