South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and leaders of the Pacific Islands have agreed to expand cooperation, including in the areas of economic development, security and the response to climate change following a two-day summit in Seoul.
The joint declaration from the first-ever Korea-Pacific Islands Summit, which ended on Tuesday, recognised shared values of “freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights” and the “rules-based regional and international order”.
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It said “peace and stability in the Pacific region are interlinked with global peace and stability”, and that the leaders acknowledged “the need to strengthen development cooperation and security collaboration including maritime security, climate security, energy security, cyber security, human security, public health and transnational security”.
Some 12 leaders and officials from 17 of the 18 members of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) took part in the Seoul summit.
Yoon told the gathered leaders on Tuesday that the inaugural summit was an occasion for him to declare the Pacific Islands a “key partner” in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
The strategy, which pledges to foster a “free, peaceful and prosperous” region, was unveiled last year amid concerns over China’s security ambitions and economic leverage among the small island states.
“The crisis of climate change, natural disasters, food, health, oceans and fisheries, which is directly linked to the survival and prosperity of Pacific island nations, can only be overcome through solidarity and cooperation,” Yoon said.
“I will firmly support the principle of a single Blue Pacific, which places importance on the role of the Pacific Islands Forum and the partnership of all member states, while deepening cooperation with Pacific island states,” he added.
Following the summit, South Korea said it would double the scale of its development assistance to Pacific island countries to $39.9m by 2027, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Seoul also supported the Pacific Islands’ push to preserve their maritime zones – a vital source of fishing revenue – even if climate change causes small island states to disappear beneath rising seas.
In their joint declaration, South Korea and the Pacific Islands shared the view the ocean should be kept free of radioactive waste, and the need for international consultation and scientific assessment – a reference to concern over Japan’s plan to release water from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.
The meeting in Seoul was the third summit in a week between Pacific island leaders and a large economy, following meetings with India and the United States.
The 17 participating PIF members were Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Tonga, Palau, Niue, Nauru, Kiribati, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Australia, New Zealand, French Polynesia and New Caledonia.
The Federated States of Micronesia was unable to attend due to a typhoon, according to Yoon’s office.
Joanne Wallis, professor of international security at the University of Adelaide in Australia and Jiye Kim, Assistant Professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, described South Korea as an “attractive partner” for the Pacific island states.
It is “highly developed, democratic and a known supporter of global climate action,” they wrote in an article published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Greater engagement with Korea also offers Pacific island countries another partnership option as they navigate the increasingly polarised strategic environment,” they wrote.
South Korea, which learned the “hard way” during the Korean War what it means to be caught in the middle of great power competition “may have valuable insights to share” with Pacific island countries who have expressed disquiet over the potential effects of strategic competition playing out in their region, they said.
However, Seoul “will find that, like other relatively new players in the region, such as India, its Pacific Islands diplomacy involves a challenging balancing act, and that increasingly assertive Pacific island countries will be watching carefully to see whether it stumbles”, they added.