Korea Chair Explains - South Korea’s participation in the G7 summit
KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 14/06/2021
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
South Korea participated in the G7 summit held in the UK on 11-13 June as one of four guest countries. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson extended an invitation to President Moon Jae-in to attend the summit earlier this year, after US President Donald Trump did the same last year before the summit was cancelled. Moon’s participation in the weekend’s summit came after Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong’s trip to the UK to participate in the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting last May. For South Korea, participation in the G7 is one of the most important moments in the history of the country’s foreign policy since its transition to democracy in 1987. Other momentous occasions include normalisation of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and China in 1990 and 1992, respectively; accession to the OECD in 1996; or membership of the upgraded G20 since its launch in 2008. (It should be noted that South Korea was a ‘limited guest’ at the 2008 and 2009 summits along with 16 other countries, and Seoul was explicitly excluded from the G8+5 format that at the time signalled which five other guest countries outside of the 16 ‘limited guests’ the G8 considered important to global governance.)
Why was South Korea invited to the G7 summit?
Both the US last year and the UK this year invited South Korea to the G7 summit in recognition of its status as one of the strongest democracies in Asia and worldwide, its position as a developed economy which is now the tenth largest in the world overall, and Seoul’s more active voice in global affairs over the past two decades. Certainly, South Korea’s strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic measured by its comparatively small number of cases and deaths also helped. But the invitation to participate in the G7 summit has come on the back of South Korea’s efforts over the past two decades to diversify its foreign policy portfolio. Seoul’s hosting of the G20 summit in 2010, Nuclear Security Summit in 2012, or virtual PG4 summit only last month are examples of this diversification. In other words, successive South Korean presidents have sought to make the country a more active foreign policy actor.
It is fair to say that both the US last year and the UK this year also invited South Korea to the G7 summit because of the inadequacy of the group to represent contemporary geopolitics. The G7 is essentially a transatlantic club. But the political, security, and economic centre of gravity has shifted towards Asia. And for both the US and a growing number of European countries – as well as the EU – China is their top foreign policy concern today. Thus why Australia and India were two of the other guest countries that both Trump and Johnson also invited to the G7 summit. In this sense, South Korea has benefited from its geographical proximity to China as well as its ideological affinity with the G7 members. It remains to be seen, however, whether other G7 members will also acknowledge the need for their group to be more geographically diverse or not. This will determine whether South Korea, as well as other guests attending this weekend’s summit, become permanent participants in the G7.
What were South Korea’s most relevant contributions to the summit?
Moon made a point to emphasise South Korea’s contribution to COVID-19 global vaccination efforts. The South Korean president pledged US$100 million in grants for the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, a financing mechanism for developing countries to access COVID vaccines. Moon also announced that South Korea would provide an additional US$100 million in aid for developing countries to fight against the pandemic. Arguably more importantly, South Korea committed to continue to produce COVID-19 vaccines for export to third countries. As of May, China, the EU, India, and South Korea, in this order, were the four largest exporters of vaccines since vaccination campaigns began across the world. With many countries reluctant to accept Chinese vaccines and India deciding to halt exports due to the worrying number of domestic COVID-19 cases, countries in Asia and elsewhere will have to increase reliance on exports from South Korea and other top exporters. From the Moon government’s perspective, this is the main contribution that his country could bring to this year’s G7 summit.
During the summit, South Korea was also actively involved in discussions about post-pandemic economic recovery and open societies. On the former, South Korea is among several countries worldwide emphasising a ‘green’ economic recovery – including a pledge to carbon neutrality by 2050. Seoul discussed how to foster the use of renewable energies, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and use technology to capture remaining emissions. It remains to be seen, however, whether South Korea can move in this direction domestically. But in any case, South Korea is willing to join the proposed T10, which could start as a supply chain to manufacture semiconductors without Chinese firms but could eventually focus on other technologies to mitigate climate change as well. With regards to open societies, South Korea signed with G7 members and the three other guests a joint statement on the importance of values such as democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law, or respect for human rights as a key basis for multilateralism. The G7+4 statement also rejected what they labelled as rising authoritarianism, economic coercion, or disinformation campaigns. Even though there were no explicit references to China – or Russia – the targets of the statement were clear. For South Korea, thus, the G7 summit was another opportunity to continue its policy of distancing itself from Beijing without openly naming the Chinese government while siding with the US and other democratic countries in terms of values.