Posted : 2013-10-07 20:15
Updated : 2013-10-07 20:15

VIPs: Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines

President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with her Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang after having a joint press conference at the Vietnamese Presidential House in Hanoi on Sept. 9 The two leaders held a summit on the day and agreed to beef up bilateral relations in various sectors including business and politics. / Yonhap

Southeast Asian countries emerge as Korea's new partners

By Kim Tae-gyu

BALI, Indonesia — Three Southeastern Asian countries — Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, lately known by the acronym VIP — climb up in the diplomatic priority list of Korea thanks to their rich potential.

In particular, the Park Geun-hye administration is ready to focus on the three states by establishing strategic alliances with them.

"The order of Park's overseas trips is notable. Excluding global powerhouses, which are crucial for our security, her first overseas destinations were Vietnam and Indonesia," Park's foreign affairs secretary Kim Hyoung-zhin said.

"And the president of the Philippines is scheduled to fly to Seoul this month to pay a state visit at the invitation of Park. It will conclude her meetings with counterparts from the VIP countries."

Park, who inaugurated in February, crossed the Pacific to have a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in May followed by a trip to China in June.

After visiting the so-called G2, Park headed to Russia early last month to take part in the G20 Summit where she held one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the annual gathering.

On the way back home, she stopped over in Vietnam, picking the Southeast Asian nation as the fourth place to visit after taking power even ahead of Korea's neighbor and the world's No. 3 economy Japan.

She is now in Indonesia to partake in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and plans to have a summit with Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta later this week.

Philippine President Benigo Aquino III will be in Seoul midway through next week for the first state visit of a foreign leader to Korea since Park took office.

"Compared to the past, the incumbent administration is paying bigger attention to the VIP countries even though officials from the previous governments may not agree with us," Kim said.

"All three countries have unique significance for us. We will put forth efforts to shore up relations with them."

Vietnam — land of new promise

Presidential secretary for trade, industry and energy Moon Jae-do concurred with Kim.

"For Korea Inc., Southeast Asian countries are the second-largest market after China. Plus, their economic size is getting larger at a very fast pace," he said.

"The region also abounds in natural resources, which are very attractive to us as we rely on imports for most of these. Thanks to the geographic proximity, Southeast Asia is the best place for us to develop resources to bring them to our country."

Specifically, Vietnam helped Korean exporters greatly as the latter racked up a $10.23-billion surplus last year alone with bilateral trade amounting to $21.67 billion, according to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA).

When Park met with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang last month, the two agreed to more than triple the transactions to $70 billion in 2020. Toward that end, they decided to accelerate ongoing negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) with the aim of wrapping them up next year.

Vietnam is also regarded as a land of new promise for Korea, which strives to export its nuclear knowhow as part of efforts to find a new growth engine at a time when economic growth is slowing.

To meet the ever-increasing power demand in line with its fast economic expansion, Vietnam has decided on nuclear power with plans to build a total of 10 plants by 2030.

Russia and Japan have been signed up to build two each and the lucrative deal for the fifth and sixth plants, whose combined value is estimated to be at least $10 billion, is currently up for grabs and Korea is seen as a potential preferred bidder.

If Vietnam eventually opts for Korea, it would be a big momentum for the nation to crank up its nuclear exports — it already sealed an $18.6-billion contract with the United Arab Emirates in 2009.

Indonesia, Philippines — potential-laden regions

From the perspective of Korea, Moon said that Indonesia and the Philippines do not lag behind Vietnam in terms of growth potential and the country can't afford to ignore them.

"Indonesia boasts rich natural resources such as iron ore, natural gas and soft coal to name but a few. Korea already depends on them to a large extent," he said.

"In addition, the world's fourth-most populous country is a huge market for our companies and its size is expanding very fast. That's why our firms continue to make inroads into it."

Korean conglomerates such as POSCO, LG and Lotte have made efforts to gain a firm footing in Indonesia. Almost all Korean manufacturers' products are available here.

In the case of the Philippines, Korea recorded an approximate $5 billion trade surplus last year and its flagship firms keep knocking on its big market.

"The Philippines banks on Korean players to supply its electricity," Moon said. "Recently, our farm ministry has fixed its eyes on the Philippines as a place for food security."

Korea is running a pilot project of harvesting grain in the Philippines to cope with any possible food crisis amid criticism that its grain self-sufficiency is way too low compared to other advanced economies.

A Seoul observer said that Park has put Philippines on the front burner not only for its economic significance but also for its strong alliance with Korea.

"Compared to Vietnam and Indonesia, many think the Philippines is smaller in land area, population or growth prospect. But Park's first state guest is the head of the Philippines," said a professor at a Seoul university who asked not to be named.

"The Philippines sent a large troop contingent to help South Korea during the Korean War. Park, who stresses trust and faith, seems to take the fact into the account in deciding her diplomatic priority list."

The Philippines joined the 1950-53 Korean War in late June, two months after it broke out. It sent an expeditionary force of some 7,500 troops, the fourth-largest force among 16 countries that dispatched combatants.

The Southeast Asian country, which was relatively wealthy at the turn of the 20th century, also offered assistance to Korea when the latter struggled to rebuild itself from the ashes of the devastating three-year war.

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