Seoul watches on as US corrals allies to counter China
Intensifying competition between the US and China is forcing South Korea, a crucial American ally that has long sought to maintain cordial ties with Beijing, to confront an awkward choice.
The Aukus security pact between the US, UK and Australia, and last month’s summit of the Quad grouping of America, Australia, India and Japan, illustrated the determination of Joe Biden’s administration to rally Washington’s allies in Asia.
But Seoul has eschewed such initiatives for fear of upsetting China, South Korea’s most important economic partner and a powerful stakeholder in the security of the divided Korean peninsula.
“The major liberal democracies of the world are coming together in this complex patchwork of coalitions, but South Korea is like the shy girl at the prom,” said Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The Australians are on the dance floor; the Koreans are sitting by the punch bowl.”
Dependent on the US for its security, South Korea hosts more than 26,400 permanent American troops, the superpower’s largest Asian deployment after its presence in Japan and third biggest globally.
Its manufacturing muscle and prowess in sectors such as semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries and artificial intelligence make it vital in the eyes of western policymakers for securing next-generation technology and global supply chains.
But South Korea’s proximity to China, and Beijing’s historic influence over North Korea, has long left Seoul eager to avoid attracting its neighbour’s wrath.
That reticence was exacerbated by the bruising experience of an unofficial Chinese economic blockade after South Korea agreed in 2016 to host a US missile defence system, and by the then US President Donald Trump’s subsequent threat to pull American troops off the peninsula in a row over funding.
“Given the historical context, Seoul’s reluctance to provoke Chinese ire is quite reasonable,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official now at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
“The big change is Biden,” said Kim Hyun Wook, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy, a research body affiliated with South Korea’s foreign ministry.
“Barack Obama did not wish to confront China. Donald Trump wanted to confront China, but didn’t care if America’s allies joined in. Biden wants to confront China, but he is also demanding America’s allies get involved. That is forcing Seoul to choose.”
The debate surrounding South Korea’s ambitious $275bn defence modernisation programme illustrates the wider uncertainty about its strategic direction.
Seoul’s development of a large “blue-water” naval fleet, coupled with a greater willingness to participate in joint military exercises with the US and other Asian and European allies, indicates a desire to play a more active role in regional security.
But defence analysts said that South Korea’s military build-up was driven as much by fear of American abandonment and suspicion over the long-term intentions of Japan as by any desire to join Washington’s efforts to confront Chinese aggression.
“South Korea continues to hedge just as a declining US needs to get the maximum benefit from all of its alliances,” said Euan Graham at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“There is a frustration for the US that South Korea is developing all these wonderful capabilities and marvellous technology, but it’s not going to play a part in any grand coalition against China - unless of course China thoroughly overplays its hand.”
Similar concerns have been raised about South Korea’s absence from the Quad.
But S Paul Choi, founder of Seoul-based political risk advisory StratWays Group, argued that South Korea’s preference for low-key bilateral diplomacy should not be misconstrued as divergence from the US’s goals.
May’s White House summit between Biden and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, he argued, indicated Seoul’s willingness to pursue similar goals to the Quad, albeit in its own way.
“You have a new agenda in US-South Korea relations that mirrors that of the Quad when it comes to climate, health security, 5G and 6G technology, supply chain resilience and so on,” said Choi.
“What would be the difference if South Korea joined the Quad: a membership card?”
Since the Moon-Biden summit, several South Korean conglomerates have announced big American investments in sectors identified by Washington as strategic priorities.
But June Park, a political economist at Princeton University, expressed scepticism that the investments signified a decisive shift in direction.
“It’s not just Korean policymakers who are hedging between the US and China — Korean business leaders are doing it, too.”
Cha, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that which direction Seoul took next depended on the 2022 presidential election.
“The [leftwing] ruling party is less tough on China, has difficult relations with Japan and doesn’t want to be a part of the Quad or other coalition groupings, whereas the [rightwing] opposition wants to be tougher on China and to work more closely with the Quad, if not join the Quad. The outcome will be consequential both for South Korea and for the United States.”
But Kim at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy suggested a decision had effectively already been made, describing the Moon-Biden summit as a “very important paradigm shift”.
“Korea is choosing the United States, but there is still a lot of doubt about America’s hegemonic capabilities. The thinking is ‘OK, we will go with you.’ But in the back of our minds there is a question: will you really be able to defend us if this goes wrong?”