- Seoul is seeking more agency and maneuverability as competition heats up between the US and China.
- South Korean President Moon Jae-in and fellow progressives are not alone in seeking a middle ground.
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South Koreans often refer to their country with a famous proverb: “In a fight between whales, the shrimp’s back gets broken.” But rather than a shrimp, Seoul is betting that it can become a dolphin, giving it more agency and maneuverability as competition heats up between the United States and China.
Getting it right would allow the country to balance its security alliance with the United States along with its economic dependence on China. Getting it wrong would see South Korea alienated in the region, distrusted by both Washington and Beijing. This balance will prove difficult, but South Korean leaders are unlikely to stop trying.
Among East Asia-watchers in the US, Seoul’s hypothesized “tilt” toward China has become something of an obsession – especially under the presidency of Moon Jae-in.
Upon taking office in 2017, Moon faced a Chinese economic pressure campaign in 2017 over his predecessor’s decision to install the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, known as THAAD. He sought to normalize relations with Beijing by agreeing to the “three no’s” – no more THAAD deployments, no South Korean integration into a regional US missile defense system, and no trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.
This was cast by many experts in Washington as a reward for China’s bad behavior, even though the agreement amounted to little in practice.
More importantly, though, the focus on Moon’s presidency misses the broader trends in South Korea’s foreign policy. Moon and his fellow progressives are not alone in seeking a middle ground between the United States and China.
There are virtually no prominent conservative national security experts in South Korea calling for the country to openly side with the United States in an anti-China coalition. Doing so would put the country’s economy at risk, as South Korea exports more to China than it does to the US, Japan and the European Union combined.
Even if a conservative candidate wins the 2022 presidential election, South Korea’s approach to relations with the US and China will remain unchanged. After all, it was Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who attended China’s parade to commemorate the end of World War II in 2015 – the only democratic leader on the stage with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
The prospect of aligning with the US in an anti-China coalition is made even more unlikely by the view – common among South Korea’s progressive and conservative foreign policy elites alike – that Washington is an increasingly unreliable partner. The economic coercion campaign that China undertook following the March 2017 deployment of THAAD, which the United States heavily pushed for, eventually cost South Korea an estimated $7.5 billion.
Throughout that ordeal, the United States not only stood idly by, but then-President Donald Trump actively sought to extort South Korea by demanding an exorbitant increase in burden-sharing payments for US military bases in the country.
There is now serious concern that Trump – or someone more organized and dangerous – could return to the White House in the future, putting the alliance in serious jeopardy. That possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, reinforcing South Korea’s preference for maintaining maneuverability.
On the other hand, a closer alignment with China is also improbable, due in part to public attitudes.
A poll conducted in South Korea in March by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 74% of respondents believe the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific increases stability in the region. And more than 90% of South Koreans consistently state support for the alliance with the US.
Views of China are not nearly as rosy. Where South Koreans’ favorability toward China was on the rise less than a decade ago, at one point even approaching the favorability levels of the United States, those positive views have more recently collapsed – as they have around the world.
In Chicago Council polling, China’s favorability rating in South Korea is now on par with North Korea and Japan. This decline is largely driven by the economic coercion campaign that followed the THAAD deployment, as well as ongoing battles over sensitive cultural and historical issues.
Moreover, 60% of South Koreans say that China and South Korea are mostly rivals. Majorities from members of the two main political parties – the ruling Democratic Party (54%) and the conservative People Power Party (63%) – agreed, as did majorities from all age cohorts.
Not only do South Koreans see China as a rival, they also view it as more of an economic threat (60%) than an economic partner (37%) and as more of a security threat (83%) than a security partner (12%). However, only 51% of South Koreans say that China’s economic power is a critical threat, and 53% say the same about China’s military power.
Far more people view declining birthrates (81%), climate change (76%) and North Korea’s nuclear program (62%) as critical threats.
That should not be taken as evidence that South Koreans are naïve about China and its intentions, however. Nearly nine in 10 say that China will seek to displace the United States either in the Asia-Pacific (28%) or in the world (60%).
Ultimately, there may not be a pressing need for South Korea to closely align with either great power, as it is not standing idly by in terms of its own defense. Under the supposedly dovish Moon administration, the country saw its two biggest year-on-year defense spending increases in its history, with an 8.2% increase in 2019 and 7.4% in 2020.
Its arms race with North Korea may attract the most attention, but it is also pursuing a blue-water navy – and that has little to do with North Korea. It has floated the idea of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines. And it is ready to develop a light aircraft carrier that could eventually carry up to 20 F-35B fighter jets.
Roh Moo-hyun, the last progressive president before Moon Jae-in, presided over construction of a deep-water naval port on Jeju island, South Korea’s southernmost point. The advance of the South Korean navy is in part a natural outgrowth of South Korea’s growing security interests around the world. But Seoul also has one eye on China and its territorial ambitions.
South Korea is in an unenviable position, and it will face growing scrutiny as it seeks to balance its economic and security interests. But the growth of its own national power has opened up previously closed spaces as it seeks to swim – not idly float – among the whales. Its ability to strike that balance will depend on not getting its tail caught.
Karl Friedhoff is the Marshall M. Bouton fellow for Asia studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @KarlFriedhoff.