The Missing Piece of the EU-ROK Digital Partnership: Development Cooperation in ASEAN

Signed in November 2022, the EU-ROK Digital Partnership offers itself as an unprecedented opportunity for both parties to develop their cooperation in the digital realm. Yet for all it does succeed in covering, the agreement remains silent on development cooperation in the area of digital capacity building in third countries.

This EIAS Policy Brief provides a set of recommendations for bridging the identified gap, based on EU-ROK current best practices and capabilities, and are designed to be addressed at the next annual Digital Partnership Council meeting. 

Mind the gap  

The EU-ROK Digital Partnership signed on 28 November 2022 is an important part of the EU’s Digital Compass. Within this strategy the EU has committed itself to build external partnerships that cover four pillars – digital skills, digital infrastructures, digital transformation of business, and the digitalisation of public services. In March 2022 the EU had agreed a similar Digital Partnership with Japan, and in February 2023 it established one with Singapore. The EU-ROK digital partnership serves as the first major agreement since the Digital Strategy of Korea was launched on 28 September 2022. The Strategy includes the ROK’s ambition to become a ‘leading country in the digital era, rather than staying stagnant as a fast-follower.’ Whilst a first for ROK-EU digital sector relations, the partnership is part of a long history of close cooperation between the two entities. South Korea is the only country in the world to have economic, security, and political agreements with the EU in effect. These consist of the Strategic Partnership and Framework Agreement of 2010, the 2011 Free Trade Agreement and the 2014 Framework Participation Agreement for EU crisis management operation

This amount of cooperation is commensurate with the shared values both hold on major political and global issues such as democracy, human rights, and climate change. As well as this, both sides are well known to place strong emphasis on upholding the international multilateral rules-based system and the usage of multilateral fora. The Digital Partnership itself is designed to facilitate a joint EU-ROK response to the implications of emerging technologies on people, industry and society, as well as to develop and advance technologies, policies, and joint research. It does this by offering itself as an overarching framework for advanced collaboration in a range of fields, such as semiconductors, 6G mobile networks, quantum technology, High Performing Computing (HPC), cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence (AI), digital platforms, digital standardisation, data, and digital skills. Though non-binding, all EU digital partnership agreements have made a commitment to set up a Digital Partnership Council, which is expected to meet, alternately for each side, on a yearly basis. This is intended to allow both the EU and the ROK to identify areas of mutual interest and potential cooperation, as well as review progress on deliverables at each meeting. Meanwhile the council is expected to prepare the deliverables themselves, with an emphasis to build on existing cooperation mechanisms so as to reduce bureaucratic burdens and coordination costs. Yet despite the Digital Partnership’s significant role in taking EU-ROK relations into the 4th industrial revolution, its emphasis on streamlining strategies, and the importance placed on deepening engagement with partners across the world and in the Indo-Pacific, the document remains silent on the important issue of development cooperation.

‘Contributive Diplomacy’ and the significance of development cooperation

The absence of development cooperation in digital capacity-building for third countries is somewhat surprising considering both the EU and ROK have made commitments such as closing the ‘digital gap,’ or the prioritisation of investments in digitalisation as a significant part of their foreign assistance policies. With the advent of an Asian Century, these strategies found a centre of gravity in Southeast Asia. Indeed, within the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific released in September 2021 and the ROK’s strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific region released in November 2022 both entities frequently point towards their prominent role as development cooperation providers and partners in Southeast Asia. The ROK’s strategy even introduces the concept of ‘contributive diplomacy,’ which it bases on its unique status as the only country to rise from being among the world’s poorest countries on the receiving end of aid between the years 1945-1995, to becoming an OECD donor country in 2010. As part of its ambitions to become a ‘global pivotal state’ it is offering partners within the region its experience, principles, as well as financial support. 

The concept of ‘development cooperation’ itself however goes one step further than contribution. On the one hand, it is a type of cooperation with three major tasks: supporting and complementing efforts of ‘developing countries’ to guarantee the provision of universal social basic standards to their citizens; promoting countries to higher levels of income and wellbeing and so correcting extreme international inequalities; and supporting efforts of ‘developing countries’ to participate actively in the provision of international public goods. At the same time there is the more subtle dimension emphasising that such cooperation be built as a partnership between equals, rather than the traditional idea of a giver and receiver dominated by the wealth and specialised knowledge of one side. Indeed, there is an emerging consensus that partnerships for development will only succeed if the ‘developing countries’ lead this process. 

Development cooperation is however more than just conducting respectful partnerships but can also be considered as a source of soft power, the ability to hold influence using other means than military or economic pressure. Soft power works with the premise that if a state can make its decisions to exercise power seem legitimate through attraction (rather than coercion), it will encounter less resistance. The soft power role of development cooperation has been demonstrated to impact the conceptualisation, implementation, and perception of projects. In turn the aim to be perceived as legitimate has shaped development policies themselves, as seen in the OECD’s 2011 Busan partnership for effective cooperation and more recent Global Partnership for effective cooperation. This has resulted in universally appealing and intersectional ideas such as ‘tackling the global digital divide’, ‘green ODA’, ‘green and digital transitions’ becoming common occurrences in both EU and ROK foreign strategies. 

Through the EU’s global gateway initiative and the ROK’s new southern policy, which is being strengthened under the current administration, both entities make it clear that enlarging their role in Southeast Asia through development cooperation is a key part of their overall long term strategy. As digitalisation in the region continues its impressive rise, both in terms of connectivity capacity but also potential as a tool to address social and economic challenges, there have been calls for development cooperation to acknowledge the impacts of good practice in digital ODA. The EU and ROK are well positioned to take a leading role in how the digital future of the Southeast Asian region takes shape. Between them the two entities score highly in cyber mature indexes, possess strong investment and construction capabilities, as well as experience managing well functioning digital platforms. Development cooperation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) member states also offers a means to promote EU – ROK shared values, including a commitment to multilateralism, of which ASEAN is already a prominent supporter. This Policy Brief argues that the Digital Partnership offers the best means to advance digital development collaboration, and can easily build on existing frameworks for bilateral cooperation. The partnership also offers itself as a promising vehicle for reviving the efforts of the now stalled ROK-EU Policy Consultations on Development Cooperation. The proposals below highlight how the Digital Partnership Agreement can be used to leverage current best practice in development cooperation for digital capacity building. It is hoped these actionable recommendations will be addressed at the upcoming Digital Partnership Council meeting.

Going forward: Recommendations for Digital Capacity Development Cooperation in Southeast Asia

The ROK and the EU are internationally recognised leaders in cybersecurity, with the former placing 4th in the 2020 Global Cybersecurity index and 8 EU nations coming within the top 20. The index takes a holistic approach to security, measuring it in terms of existing national regulation, with the ROK in particular getting a near perfect score in all areas of cybersecurity proficiency; legal, technical, organisational ability, capacity development, and cooperative measures. Southeast Asia has historically been a region of significant cybersecurity vulnerability, with security and privacy being cited as the biggest barrier towards digital transformation. Whilst an updated ASEAN cooperation strategy for 2021-2025 was being worked on, as of today this still remains an unimplemented draft.  The most concrete step towards an overarching regional framework so far has been the ASEAN Coordinating Committee on Cybersecurity (ASEAN-Cyber CC), designed to complement existing efforts on cybersecurity capacity building by the ASEAN–Singapore Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence (ASCCE) and the ASEAN–Japan Cybersecurity Capacity Building Centre (AJCCBC). Both of these initiatives conduct similar operations to NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE), (which the ROK is now a contributing partner of) such as research, training, and co-creating legal frameworks, and defence simulations. We can see there is clear room for the EU and ROK to work together, to support current ASEAN efforts and those of its nation states in their cyber capacity building. In the ASEAN-EU Statement on Cybersecurity Cooperation and 23rd ROK – ASEAN summit, both entities have emphasised a willingness to do so.

Going forward, the EU and ROK can thus build on the initiatives already in place for existing cyber capacity projects. The Korea Internet and Security Agency’s (KISA) Cybersecurity Alliance for Mutual Progress (CAMP) cooperates with organisations from 37 countries. It holds the purpose of achieving sustainable benefits and serving as a platform where members prepare themselves with collective actions to keep cyberspace safe. Meanwhile the EU CyberNet project launched in 2019, is a network and a practical learning platform designed specifically for strengthening cybersecurity globally, supporting the EU’s capacity to provide technical assistance to third countries in the field of cybersecurity and cybercrime. Both these organisations would benefit from a more structured and officialised platform for partnership. Currently the Digital Partnership Agreement cites the potential of signing an MoU between the EU agency ENISA and ROK ministry MSIT. This scope should be widened to provide a framework for collaboration with entities such as KISA, EU-CERT, and EUCyberNet, mandating the establishment of a joint EU-ROK Centre for Cyber Security Capacity Development – CyberSecurDE – designed specifically for projects in Southeast Asia.

In terms of digital infrastructure, Southeast Asia still lags behind other regions with only Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia having over 80% of internet penetration, whilst the EU as a whole has 91%. Furthermore, average broadband speeds in Southeast Asia are only a fraction of what countries like South Korea or the EU enjoy. This not only affects members of the public but also acts as a significant hindrance for businesses looking to move online or expand their digital operations, an issue cited at the 2022 Vietnam ROK business forum. In turn, the ASEAN Digital Masterplan 2025 outlines eight desired outcomes, the second of which, after covid recovery, is to increase the quality and coverage of fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure. Recognising that an excellent telecommunications infrastructure is at the heart of any digital transformation, the Digital Masterplan wants to ensure these are upgraded to higher data rates capabilities and that their coverage is extended into rural areas.

The ROK and EU are well positioned to provide such assistance, both through their capacities to leverage competitive funding mechanisms supporting major projects in developing countries, but also in view of their specific expertise in digital infrastructure. The EU in particular has a wide range of experience in ensuring digital connectivity. Its BELLA programme completed in March 2021 marked the first time a direct, high-speed and secure data connection has been established between Europe and Latin America, whilst the PRIDA (Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa) programme aims to promote universally accessible and affordable broadband across the continent. Meanwhile at the beginning of 2022 the European Investment Bank (EIB) set up EIB Global, specifically dedicated to funding projects outside of the EU. The new branch’s stated aim is to cooperate with clients, EU Member States, financial institutions, and civil society, to increase the impact of development financing. In turn the Export-Import Bank of Korea, responsible for the operation of the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF), is a vehicle to enhance cooperative economic ties with ‘developing’ countries. Their work includes appraising, concluding loans agreements, disbursement, as well as implementing evaluation for economic development aid projects in developing countries as well as providing policy direction for ODA. Recently Korea and Vietnam signed a Cooperation Framework on the Utilisation of Korean ODA with a goal to use EDCF financing for transportation projects in Vietnam. The Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) in turn is the branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tasked with the granting of ODA and technical assistance programmes. Their work has covered a number of SDG related projects with a focus on improving developing countries’ ability to be self-reliant.

The next step of the Digital Partnership must be to leverage such funding mechanisms and agencies to deliver tangible results in EU-ROK digital capacity building in third countries. The EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), set up through the EU-US 2021 summit in Brussels, offers a promising blueprint for taking such action. The third ministerial meeting of the TTC saw the launch of two new cooperative investment initiatives by the EU and US in Jamaica and Kenya. These projects will support the building of fibre optic connections to schools in remote areas, provide a policy roadmap for affordable, secure, trustworthy and meaningful connectivity, as well as training options to develop the next generation of digital professionals. These initiatives will be supported through a Memorandum of Understanding between the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC), an unprecedented and concrete next step for ensuring the financing of digital capacity building in third countries. The EU-ROK Digital Partnership Council should consider establishing a similar means to finance joint development cooperation projects, pursuing an MoU between the EIB and EDCF or KOICA. As with the TTC the financing could be used for digital connectivity projects, providing support for rural regions in particular. Promising areas for investment that could best address this are through facilitating the digital transition of rural banks as well as increasing the availability of digital infrastructure across the countries.

Author: Philip Chennery, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Pixabay