Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Korea's Resident ASEAN Ambassador on the Way; China's Will Have to Wait

South Korea is appointing a resident ambassador to ASEAN, according to the Chosun Ilbo.  Baek Seong-taek, the ambassador for international affairs in Busan, will take his post in July. Korea will thus become the third country to appoint a resident ambassador, after the United States and Japan.

That South Korea would appoint a resident ambassador is not too much of a surprise, since the country has an FTA with ASEAN, and Korea is an active ASEAN + 3 member.   Japan, another ASEAN +3 member, already has a resident ambassador.

And the third ASEAN + 3 member? That would be China, which has announced plans to appoint a resident ambassador.  The fact that China’s resident ambassador is still a work-in-progress may be linked to the current South China Sea dispute at the Scarborough Shoals.  Perhaps China does not want to encourage an ASEAN-centric approach by appointing a resident ambassador whose initial work schedule would be dominated by the issue.  China would rather focus the agenda for its ASEAN mission on economic and development issues, which motivated appointing a resident ambassador in the first place despite the concerns about regionalizing the South China Sea dispute.

Thus, China will likely wait for the situation to become calmer, and just as importantly, for the Chinese communist party leadership succession to be completed, before appointing a resident ambassador to ASEAN. However, making that diplomatic step will mean that China must face both the economic and the political dimensions of its engagement with ASEAN on a daily basis, not just on the travel schedules of its senior diplomats.