South Korea Has Quietly Taken Sides in the U.S.-China Rivalry

World Politics Review, 04.01.2022
Ramon Pacheco Pardo, profesor de RRII (King’s College-London y Brussels School of Governance)

South Korea’s era of “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to taking sides in the great power rivalry between its historical ally and its rising neighbor is well and truly over. The Moon Jae-in government has moved away from seeking a middle ground between the U.S. and China. Quietly but surely, Seoul has decided to side with Washington in its competition with Beijing.

The signs of this shift are everywhere. Prominent examples include the joint statement signed by Moon and U.S. President Joe Biden in May, which called out Beijing’s behavior in everything but name, and Seoul’s military build-up, which targets China as much as North Korea, particularly with the commissioning of an aircraft carrier to be deployed in international waters that include the South China Sea. Further illustrations are Moon’s participation in Biden’s exclusive 12-leader plenary during the recent Summit for Democracy and the Global Supply Chain Resilience summit in October. The Moon government also enthusiastically took part in the G-7 summit in June, where it signed the Open Societies Statement that also implicitly targeted China. And as if that weren’t enough evidence of a newfound willingness to quietly stand up to Beijing, South Korea also tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul for talks with the South Korean government in September.

Seoul is not yet willing to openly chastise Beijing in the same way that Washington or some of its other allies are doing. And there is no talk in South Korea about decoupling from China. After all, China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, its millennia-old neighbor and an important actor in dealing with North Korea.

But the shift toward quietly pushing back against Beijing alongside the U.S. and other like-minded partners is clear. And it is here to stay regardless of who wins the 2022 presidential election in Seoul.

There are four main reasons behind this shift.

The first and most important is that Seoul itself feels threatened by China’s increasingly assertive behavior, of which it has first-hand and close-up experience. As a case in point, in 2016, South Korean firms were on the receiving end of Chinese economic coercion after the government agreed to the deployment of Washington’s THAAD anti-missile system. Furthermore, hundreds of illegal Chinese fishing boats regularly enter South Korean territorial waters. And Chinese jets violate South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone on a regular basis. On top of that, poorly regulated Chinese factories and coal energy plants are a major cause of pollution in South Korea.

Simply put, South Korea has its own grievances against China. They may not make headlines beyond the Korean Peninsula. But they are a threat that Seoul contends with on a daily basis.

In addition, the coronavirus pandemic served as a wake-up call for Seoul about the threat posed by the Chinese government’s lack of transparency. At the outset of the pandemic, it was Taiwan, and not China, that shared information with South Korea about the coronavirus’ dangers. Moreover, as a result of Beijing’s opacity and pressure, the South Korean government kept the country’s borders open with China until it was too late to stop the spread of the pandemic. China did not reciprocate, closing its borders with South Korea as soon as the pandemic had hit the latter, a move that went down poorly in Seoul.

Similarly to other advanced countries, preexisting negative views of China among South Koreans have become even worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a longstanding debate regarding whether the views of the general public influence governments’ foreign policy decisions. At the very least, however, it would be difficult for a government in a democratic country to openly disregard these views. This is the case in South Korea, where the government simply can’t ignore the fact that almost 80 percent of the population has a negative view of China.

Furthermore, the Moon government has welcomed Biden’s approach toward China, particularly compared to that of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who Seoul considered to be unnecessarily confrontational. South Korea much prefers Biden’s strategy to build a coalition among like-minded partners to push back against Beijing’s unfair trade practices, military and economic coercion, and human rights abuses. Moreover, the Biden administration’s focus on the procurement and delivery of semiconductors, vaccines and other high-tech products plays to South Korea’s strengths. Seoul also welcomes the message coming out Washington that it does not need its partners to “choose” between the U.S. and China.

Finally, South Korea is becoming more confident. The Moon government is pursuing an autonomous foreign policy, and there is now a belief among many South Korean policymakers that their country should exercise its economic muscle and be less afraid of economic retaliation from China. After all, Seoul is a world leader in semiconductors, electric batteries, 5G and 6G telecommunications infrastructure, and vaccine manufacturing, on which other countries depend for these products. But autonomy does not preclude cooperation with like-minded partners—above all the United States.

In other words, the old adage that South Korea is a “shrimp among whales” is outdated. The U.S. and China, the two whales confronting each other, are not about to crush the shrimp that some think South Korea still is. As then-Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha put it in September 2020, “Korea is certainly in a geopolitical position that looks like we are caught in a crossfire. But I think you can turn that around and say it’s leverage.”

Critics have argued that South Korea should more openly criticize China and join every initiative to counter Beijing that the Biden administration puts forward. But this is disingenuous. Australia and Japan, for instance, are simultaneously members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with the U.S. and India, and part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the largest trade deal in the world that will enter into force in January and which counts China—as well as South Korea—among its members. Fellow Quad member India recently signed a joint foreign ministers’ statement with China and Russia pledging cooperation on a host of different issues. The European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy, issued in September, calls for cooperation with China where possible, at least in theory. Even the Biden administration signed a bilateral climate change cooperation agreement with Beijing only a few months ago.

Simply put, few countries see Sino-American competition as a binary choice. And no country has the power to openly confront China the way the U.S. does. South Korea is no exception. It is siding with the Biden administration in most areas, yes. But it is not about to cut all ties with Beijing, which is unrealistic. To its credit, the Biden administration seems to understand this.

The key implications of South Korea’s quiet choice are twofold.

To begin with, Seoul will continue to strengthen its participation in and cooperation with Washington’s initiatives, including the Quad and the proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. At the same time, it will boost security ties with other partners such as Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam and, though without much fanfare, Japan, as well as the EU and NATO. Initiatives that bring benefits to third parties and cooperation with a broad set of partners, without openly targeting Beijing, suit Seoul.

The other implication is that the next South Korean president is very likely to continue to implement the same policy the Moon government has over the past two years, since the factors driving this policy shift are structural. A conservative president may be more vocal in criticizing China and may formally join the Quad if invited. But the thrust of Seoul’s approach to Sino-American competition will not change no matter who is in power. This is welcome news for the Biden administration.

Ultimately, South Korea does not have the United States’ ability to confront Beijing overtly and explicitly. But when it comes to China, Seoul is much closer to Washington’s position than critics may care to acknowledge. And this is not due to pressure from the Biden administration. It is South Korea’s own choice.

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