Between a rock & a hard place: South Korea’s US-China conundrum
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Between a rock & a hard place: South Korea’s US-China conundrum

Seoul is being pulled back and forth between Beijing and Washington as the two compete for regional influence.

South Korea must figure out how to navigate these choppy waters while putting its own interests first.

In the 27 years since diplomatic normalisation between South Korea and China, relations have gone through ebbs and flows. Four principal crises stand out. The first two were the ‘garlic battle’ trade dispute of 1999–2000 and the historiographical controversy over the ancient dynasty of Koguryo in 2004.

In 2010, a rift formed after China one-sidedly defended North Korea when it sank the South Korean navy ship Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island. The relationship further worsened in 2016 over South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

The latter two crises were over hard security issues and included third parties (North Korea and the United States), pushing South Korea–China relations into a stage where conflict resolution is more difficult.

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Since the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008–2013) prioritised improving the South Korea–US alliance, the succeeding government under Park Geun-hye (2013–2017) found a window of opportunity for rebuilding Seoul’s damaged relations with Beijing.

Consequently a view spread that South Korea was tilting toward China at the expense of US relations. Much of the ‘improvement’ through 2013–2015 was an outcome of excessive politicisation of foreign affairs and an exaggeration of the ‘friendship’ between Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But this friendship shattered, perhaps too easily, when THAAD became a thorny issue. Seoul clearly over-estimated the strategic bond it had cultivated with Beijing under the slogan of ‘trust diplomacy’.

Notable among South Korea’s problems is the factor of ‘proxy competition’ between China and the United States. Despite their ever-intensifying strategic competition, the nuclear balance of terror prevents Washington and Beijing from engaging in any direct war. China’s lack of allies precludes proxy wars with US allies as in the Cold War.

What is happening now is mostly proxy competition (or third-party coercion) where the United States and China both continually ask of other states the exclusivity question — ‘are you with us or against us?’

South Korea’s struggle with proxy competition manifested in its agonised decisions over whether to join the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and whether to support the tenet of ‘Asian security by Asian peoples’ at the 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia.

Other decisions included whether to take part in the 2015 V-Day commemoration in Beijing, to deploy THAAD, to support the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea, to accept Washington’s demands against Huawei and to support the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Amid growing proxy competition, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to improve relations with China even by making concessions.

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Seoul dispatched three special envoys in two months to dissuade Beijing from applying THAAD-related sanctions to no avail, and defined the THAAD deployment as ‘temporary’ until a general environmental assessment is completed (which is still pending). It then decided to forgo the option of suing China at the World Trade Organization for its THAAD retaliation.

More importantly, South Korea also agreed on the ‘three no’s position’ — no additional THAAD deployment, no joining the US missile defence system and no development of trilateral security cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan into a military alliance.

These major measures, and even Moon’s 2017 state visit to China, produced only minor changes to China’s THAAD sanctions.

South Korea–China relations since early 2018 remain ‘undefined’ as Seoul’s diplomacy has been fully devoted to a rapprochement with Pyongyang. Three traits characterise South Korea’s approach: underestimating the threat posed by North Korea, overestimating China’s willingness to resolve the North Korean conundrum, and undervaluing its own alliance with the United States.

As far as the North Korean issue is concerned, South Korea’s approach is more closely in line with China’s.

While Seoul’s affinity toward China might have decreased somewhat since the much-criticised state visit, progressive politicians in power are not necessarily willing to give much credit to the United States and its transactional President Donald Trump either.

As a result, Seoul’s stance on Huawei is to wait it out and its approach to the Indo-Pacific strategy is to signal ambiguity while highlighting economic common grounds with its own New Southern Policy.

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Three issues are particularly pertinent regarding South Korea–China relations in the near future. First, how is the row with Japan going to affect Seoul’s relationship with Beijing?

Second, how will South Korea protect its own sovereignty against a proxy competition that will not go away soon?

Third, will the Moon government become capable of distinguishing national interests from ideological beliefs and realising that the top priority of one’s foreign policy is to avoid being bullied by stronger neighbours?

How the Moon government navigates these challenges will go a long way to determining if the Moon government is up to the task of serving the South Korean national interest.

Jae Ho Chung is Professor at the College of Social Sciences and Director of the Program on US–China Relations (PUCR) at Seoul National University.

This article has been republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons License.