Back To Top

S. Korea faces strategic choices amid growing Sino-U.S. rivalry

This is the last in the series of articles on America’s refocus on the Asia-Pacific region and the possible impact on its alliances with South Korea and Japan. ― Ed.

Amid an intensifying contest for primacy between the U.S. and China, policymakers in Seoul are agonizing over what strategic choices should serve the best interests of South Korea.

Washington is deepening its engagement in the strategically important and economically vibrant Asia-Pacific. Apparently seeking to keep a rising China in check, the U.S. may hope that its long-standing ally South Korea, along with Japan, will move in tune with its foreign and defense policy.

Seoul appeared concerned that deepening military ties with the U.S. could hinder its efforts to use China’s influence to facilitate North Korea’s denuclearization and expand economic interests through business with its largest trade partner.

“We are now in a very delicate position where we face hard choices. We need to draw up a strategic vision to more sophisticatedly deal with the current situation, while policymakers should remain cautious not to strain ties with any of them,” said Chun In-young, professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

Since taking office in 2008, President Lee Myung-bak has prioritized improving ties with Washington. The ties had deteriorated under his liberal predecessors, who were often at odds with the U.S. on policies toward the North and sought to rebalance the relationship with the ally.

The Lee administration clinched a bilateral free trade pact with the U.S. and joined U.S.-led initiatives including a nuclear security campaign and anti-Tehran sanctions.
President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama talk on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Mexico on June 18.(Yonhap News)
President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President Barack Obama talk on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Mexico on June 18.(Yonhap News)
and U.S. President Barack Obama talk on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Mexico on June 18.(Yonhap News)
and U.S. President Barack Obama talk on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Mexico on June 18.(Yonhap News)

The relationship between the allies has become closer as the U.S. stood firm in support of Seoul when it was attacked by its northern neighbor twice in 2010. China, at the time, was seen siding with its wayward ally Pyongyang, rather than denouncing it for its lethal provocations.

Seoul and Beijing have also sought to improve their ties, particularly on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of their diplomatic relations this year.

South Korea and China are now in negotiations over their bilateral free trade agreement, a move that would further deepen their economic interdependence. The two-way trade volume, which stood at $6.3 billion in 1992 when the two countries opened diplomatic relations, jumped to $200 billion last year

But the ties had deteriorated over Beijing’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors and its claim to jurisdiction over Ieodo south of Jeju Island, a submerged rock in the overlapping exclusive economic zones of the countries.

Need for strategic vision

Recent controversy over a military intelligence-sharing pact between Seoul and Tokyo underlined South Korea’s lack of a diplomatic strategy and vision, and apparently made Beijing wonder about its intentions, experts said.

For the U.S., the pact was a good opportunity to spur trilateral security cooperation. But China could construe the pact as part of efforts to hem it in.

“Had we had a well-thought-out diplomatic vision and dealt with the pact in a more sophisticated way, we would have handled it in a more judicious way,” said Chun of the SNU.

“For the pact, South Korea should have sought to garner understanding from China so that we can minimize any negative impact in the relationship with Beijing. We could have explained the purpose of the pact (to better deal with North Korean threats).”

Washington has long sought to forge triangular security ties, but such efforts have been hamstrung by historical animosity between Korea and Japan, and the latter’s repeated sovereignty claim to Korea’s Dokdo.

Seoul failed to ink the pact with Tokyo after pushing the agreement without securing public consensus.

Given that Korea is surrounded by the world’s major powers, the country needs a more prudent diplomatic strategy to respond to the changing security landscape, Chun stressed.

“To deal with security, diplomatic issues, we need to have a clear goal and vision, and remain sensitive to the (security) environment. The current government restored and strengthened ties with the U.S., but appears to have faltered while adapting to the changing environment,” he said.

“South Korea is surrounded by big powers and has limits in terms of national power. We, thus, need to prioritize the relationship with the U.S., but at the same time, should pay closer attention to the relations with neighboring states to survive and flourish.”

Time for balanced foreign policy

South Korea’s diplomatic and security policy has long been centered on the U.S. with their alliance moving toward a multi-faceted, valued-based partnership. Such a close relationship has been vital in coping with military threats posed by the unpredictable North Korea.

But too much reliance on the U.S. could limit Korea’s choices, especially when their national interests conflict, experts said.

Seoul has joined the U.S.-led anti-Iran sanctions. Considering that it has long called for international help to denuclearize the North, the South could not help but participate in the punitive move against Tehran’s controversial nuclear programs.

But Seoul’s decision apparently strained ties with the oil-rich Islamic republic where its public consumes many Korean products including electronic goods and cars, and enjoys Korean pop culture.

“In a situation when the U.S. and China are competing for preeminence in the region, Seoul’s policy unilaterally leaning toward the U.S. would only end up limiting its strategic choices,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University.

“We should not think that our interests will always coincide with those of the U.S. Adopting a policy that could cause friction with China should be avoided. Rather than becoming subordinate to the U.S., we should seek wise ways to capitalize on it for our national interest.”

Above all, what is important for policymakers is to grow out of their Cold-War mentality and seek a more balanced diplomatic policy. Seoul should also map out a more sophisticated policy for China whose regional influence continues to expand based on its economic and military might.

“To establish a durable peace system on the Korean Peninsula, we also need support from China. Trade volume with China is more than that with the U.S. and Japan. Given all this, diplomacy focusing too much on the U.S. should be reconsidered,” said a security expert, who declined to be identified.

Importance of Korea-U.S. alliance

Seoul’s taking an ambiguous stance could undermine ties with the U.S. whose military has long been one major pillar to ensure security and peace on the Korean Peninsula, experts said.

In particular, in the event of a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime, trust between South Korea and the U.S. is critical as it could determine how far the U.S. is willing to go to support Seoul’s hope for national reunification.

“The Korea-U.S. alliance is something that could determine the fate of our nation. We should look at it from a strategic standpoint, pushing aside all these political and ideological disputes over it,” said Chung Sung-yoon at Ilmin International Relations Institute of Korea University.

Chung stressed that it is “risky” to walk a tightrope between the U.S. and China as it could cause distrust between Seoul and Washington.

“Even if we took a shift toward China, China would not trust us all that much. Some say remaining neutral would help improve our interests amid the Sino-U.S. rivalry, but we could be abandoned by both (with an ambiguous stance),” he said.

“A crack in the relationship with the U.S. and any distrust between the allies would be too big a strategic loss. Remember that former President Roh Moo-hyun’s strategy to play a ‘balancing role’ between the big powers was not that successful.”

Multilateral framework to prevent revisionist China

For the U.S., South Korea and Japan alike, ensuring that China remains a “satisfied, status-quo power” in the region is a crucial task.

Experts said that forging a strong cooperative network between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan will help the assertive China become a “responsible regional stakeholder.”

“Now, China is a status-quo power. But as it gets stronger militarily and economically, China could become a revisionist and try to challenge the regional order,” said Nam Chang-hee, a political science professor at Inha University.

“To prevent this situation, South Korea, the U.S., Japan as well as Australia can form a strong network to persuade China to remain a status-quo power and become a responsible regional stakeholder. It will help China fight off its temptation to become a revisionist. It is different from an alliance to counter or contain China.”

Such a multilateral network is crucial, especially when China seeks to aggressively expand its maritime interests in the South China Sea where crucial sea lines of communications linking energy storehouses of the Middle East converge and many resources remain untapped.

Currently, China has been engaged in increasingly strident territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea and Japan in the East China Sea. China and South Korea have also had a dispute over Ieodo.

“We have to capitalize on multilateral institutions such as the East Asia Summit where countries in the region openly express their opinion or grievances so that we can limit China’s increasing assertiveness,” said Kim Tae-hyun, a political science professor at Chung Ang University.

“We can show to Beijing on the public stage that their aggressive moves are not in their best interests. We should make diplomatic efforts so that we don’t have to face any hard choice between the two big powers.”

By Song Sang-ho (