Historically, Korea has been a perennial victim of great-power politics. For centuries, Imperial China and Japan struggled for influence over the Chosun Dynasty. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 was in essence in a fight for control of Korea.
When the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, the Soviet Union and the US divided the country in half, pulling the Korean people to the epicenter of the Cold War.
In 2018, South Korea sees itself squeezed among three nuclear powerhouses (US, China, Russia), one remilitarizing historical rival (Japan), and an ever-dangerous “Rocket Man” to the north. Perhaps most important, the growing great-power rivalry between China and the US is cornering South Korea into a zero-sum game whereby it is pressured to join one side or the other.
What could Seoul do to avoid the recurring trap of great-power politics? First and foremost, Seoul must finesse pragmatic hedging between US and China. South Korea should seek to extricate itself from the rising tension between the two great powers.
While the US-Korea security guarantee remains the core of regional stability, Seoul would benefit from expanding its trade relations with Beijing. The Donald Trump administration’s 2018 National Security Strategy clearly labeled China as a “strategic competitor” that aspires to thwart US hegemony and undermine its democratic values.
The report notably connected trade with security, hinting that Washington would use trade imbalance and China’s violations of intellectual-property rights as leverage to form a more favorable security environment.
As the two major powers increasingly clash over various agendas, they are each likely to seek to bring South Korea closer into their own sphere of influence. Specifically, Washington could nudge Seoul to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, currently consisting of the US, Australia, India and Japan. It could also in the long term work to integrate Seoul into its regional missile defense system, stretching from Japan to India.
China in turn may use its influence over North Korea as a leverage to pressure the South into withdrawing the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system or tacitly consenting to Chinese domination of the South China Sea.
Seoul will have to respond to these demands on a case-by-case basis, focusing on pragmatic gains rather than symbolic signatures.
Joining the Quad would enhance South Korea’s maritime cooperation with major powers, and expand its strategic horizon beyond the Korean Peninsula. However, such move would unequivocally signal that Seoul had entered what many see as a prototype “Asian NATO”.
While Beijing has repeatedly meddled with Seoul’s sovereign decisions, it has seldom commented on the prospect of militarily coercing South Korea. Such restraint is likely to vanish once it becomes clear that the US-Korea alliance has evolved from a deterrence against North Korea into a security structure counterbalancing China.
In the same vein, joining the missile defense system would unnecessarily antagonize China with little gain – connecting with defense systems in Japan would not enhance interception capability vis-a-vis North Korean missiles.
Even more important, China considers its “mutual vulnerability” with the US the strongest bulwark against direct bilateral conflict. In Beijing’s view, mutual conviction that military confrontation would result in “unacceptable retaliatory damage” is an important pillar of strategic stability. A fully connected missile defense system would be perceived as an attempt to undermine Beijing’s second-strike capability in a regional conflict, giving Washington a first-strike vantage point.
Seoul’s participation would not only endanger its own security but also that of the entire region.
Equally important, conceding to excessive Chinese demands weakens the US-Korea alliance and in turn harms Korea’s security. The US nuclear umbrella, along with its 23,000 troops stationed in the southern part of the peninsula, is the strongest deterrence against North Korean threats.
While developing independent capability to deter aggression remains critical, undermining the alliance with Washington would simply render Seoul hostage to Pyongyang’s – and eventually Beijing’s – ambitions.
The Chinese government’s worldview is still largely rooted in suzerainty; smaller neighboring tributary states should acquiesce to Beijing’s demands because China is more powerful. In that backdrop, Beijing’s demands to remove THAAD from South Korea, the purpose of which is evidently to deter North Korean missile threats, should be interpreted more as an instinctive aversion to a US installation in China’s “back yard” and an attempt to divide the two allies rather than a genuine security concern.
As long as South Korea does not incorporate itself into the regional air defense system, it has no reason to concede to China’s demands.
On the other hand, South Korea has little stake in the South China Sea. Although universal freedom of navigation is critical to Korea’s oil imports, it is unimaginable that any involved country would intentionally disrupt global oil routes at the risk of international criticism and countermeasures.
From a strictly realistic viewpoint, the current deadlock in the South China Sea is off South Korea’s policy priority list, and rightly so. Seoul should continue to remain neutral on the issue, siding neither with Washington nor with Beijing.
Identify areas of common interest
At the same time, it would serve Seoul best to identify whether its interests align more with those of the US or China and engage more actively in those arenas.
For example, the US, China and South Korea all want a stable, denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Seoul could begin unofficially consulting Washington and Beijing on the aftermath of denuclearization or regime collapse in North Korea, instead of letting them determine the future of the peninsula.
Seoul might have to make realistic concessions to Beijing if necessary, but even those compromises would be made under Korean, US and Chinese terms, not Sino-American.
To avoid the so-called “Korea Passing”, Seoul must reassert its sovereignty through such initiatives. Furthermore, it could step up as a mediator in US-China relations.
Washington and Seoul are worried about Pyongyang’s aggression, while Beijing and Seoul are wary of Tokyo’s remilitarization. Economically, South Korea is the only East Asian country to have signed free-trade agreements with both the US and China; a trade dispute between Washington and Beijing would directly affect South Korea’s economy.
This complex situation by itself puts South Korea in a unique position to emerge as a mediator. As a middle power saddled between the two countries, South Korea is strong enough to play an intermediary role but not so strong as to become a major player itself.
Culturally as well, South Korea represents a middle ground between the two. It remains a key nation in what Samuel Huntington called a “Confucian civilization”. It identifies with China on many cultural aspects, rooted in a millennium of interaction. At the same time, it has fully adopted Western liberal democracy and an open market system.
The only other candidate that fulfills these criteria is Japan, but Tokyo is – at least in Beijing’s view – clearly in America’s sphere of influence, making it an unlikely mediator.
South Korea could facilitate mutual understanding, given that US and Chinese foreign policies are greatly affected by cultural factors.
According to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “the American approach to policy is pragmatic; China’s is conceptual.” While the US values individualism in domestic society and Westphalian sovereignty in international order, China prioritizes harmonious society and hierarchy based on relative power. US policies focus on their immediate effects, while China thinks in terms of decades, even centuries.
South Korea can empathize will all these aspects and can work to bridge potential misunderstandings between Beijing and Washington; Seoul should seek to exploit this unique position to improve its global profile and reduce overall friction between the two powers.
In essence, South Korea should exercise pragmatism, unfettered by ideological resentments. Progressives often see the US as an imperialist power bent on keeping Seoul under its total control, while conservatives continue to view China as an unapproachable Maoist enemy.
While foreign policy is oftentimes inevitably an extension of domestic politics, a realistic approach unconstrained by outdated Cold War rhetoric is vital to South Korea’s future success. It should adjust to contemporary reality to deal with powerhouses.
The world is evolving and the Korean people too must evolve.