One of the most pressing items on the foreign policy agenda for South Korea’s next president is how to handle the US–China contest for influence. The top contenders — the Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and the conservative People’s Power Party presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol — each present a distinct blueprint of foreign policy goals.
Lee plans to largely inherit President Moon Jae-in’s legacy of engaging North Korea and balancing between China and the US, while Yoon plans to focus on North Korea’s denuclearisation and reinvigorating the US–ROK alliance.
Regardless of who is elected on 9 March 2022, South Korea’s success in managing an intensifying US–China rivalry lies in reversing the current course, which has been three decades in the making.
Under the new president, South Korea must commit to more robust endorsement of the US, while making measured reassurance towards China — instead of offering implicit support for the US that is overshadowed by explicit overtures to China. The new president should start by acknowledging the shortcomings of ‘strategic ambivalence’ without scapegoating the opposing party. South Korea must actively resist China’s attempts at circumscribing the US–ROK alliance, and reaffirm its identity as a leading member of the liberal international order committed to democratic values.
South Korea needs to move beyond claims that past administrations have substantially differed in their US and China policies. The conservative bloc is quick to blame Moon for being pro-China at the cost of distancing from the US.
Yet, this accusation is misleading. The alliance reached new milestones under Moon’s presidency, such as the termination of the Revised Missile Guidelines. It overlooks that past presidents took drastic steps to deepen ties with China. This includes former conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak, who upgraded bilateral relations into a ‘strategic cooperative partnership’ in 2008 and Park Geun-hye, who sparked controversy as the only democratic head of state attending China’s military parade in 2015.
The new president must admit that South Korea’s political engagement of China may have been premature, and that both the left and right are complicit. Instead of dwelling in a left–right divide on foreign policy, South Korea should push for a bipartisan consensus that adapts to the hard lessons learned in dealing with China. For the first time, there is a perfect opportunity to do this — thanks to widespread anti-China sentiment among the Korean population, especially among the younger generation.
The new president must push back China’s efforts at delimiting the US–ROK alliance. South Korea should discontinue the current administration’s end-of-war initiative, as it risks an untimely reduction or withdrawal of US military presence without reciprocal commitment from North Korea. It should oppose the ‘dual suspension’ model that calls for halting joint military exercises in exchange for a freeze on nuclear testing, as it may undermine alliance interoperability. South Korea also needs to prioritise China’s compliance with international sanctions on North Korea, instead of looking the other way when it fails to do so.
South Korea’s reluctance in raising sensitive issues has resulted in China boldly condoning North Korea’s military provocations and demanding UN sanctions to be lifted in 2021.
South Korea needs to rebrand itself as a key stakeholder that shares core security interests with other liberal democracies — Australia, Japan and Taiwan. South Korea’s fear of antagonising China has raised China’s expectations of obedience, as evidenced by China’s recent retaliation on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). Joining US-led multilateral institutions such as the QUAD and the ‘Five Eyes’ partnership could provide an opportunity to reset those expectations. Now that South Korea’s suspicion of Japan has been surpassed by an unprecedented threat perception of China, the time may be ripe for renewed participation in trilateral security initiatives.
South Korea’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ has ironically enabled China to be more outspoken about its dissatisfaction of the US–ROK alliance, departing from its former position of tacit acceptance. It has also been ineffective in getting China to cooperate with curbing North Korea’s nuclear armament. Perhaps South Korea’s biggest mistake has been framing the US–China rivalry as if there was a new choice to make. As a liberal democracy and a key US ally, South Korea has already made that choice. It would do well to align its policy accordingly in the years to come.
Jeehye Kim is Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.
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