Increasing competition between the US and China is forcing South Korea, a crucial US ally that has long sought to maintain cordial ties with Beijing, to face an awkward choice.
The Aukus Security treaties between the US, UK and Australia, and last month’s summit of last month’s grouping of America, Australia, India and Japan, illustrate Joe Biden’s administration’s determination to bring Washington’s allies to Asia.
But Seoul has avoided such initiatives for fear of upsetting China, South Korea’s main economic partner and a powerful stakeholder in the security of the divided Korean peninsula.
“The great liberal democracies of the world come together in these complex pieces of coalitions, but South Korea is like the shy girl at the prom,” said Victor Cha, Korea’s chairman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The Australians are on the dance floor; the Koreans sit at the punch box. ”
Depending on the US for its security, South Korea houses more than 26,400 permanent US troops, the superpower’s largest Asian deployment after its presence in Japan and the third largest in the world.
The manufacturing muscle and skill in sectors such as semiconductors, batteries for electric vehicles and artificial intelligence make it necessary in the eyes of Western policymakers to secure the next generation of technology and global supply chains.
But the proximity of South Korea to China and the historical influence of Beijing on North Korea no longer make Seoul attract the anger of its neighbor.
The restraint was exacerbated by the bruising of a unofficial Chinese economic blockade after South Korea agreed in 2016 to offer a US missile defense system, and by then-US President Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw US troops in a row from the peninsula over funding.
“Given the historical context, Seoul’s unwillingness to provoke Chinese anger is reasonable,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official now at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
“The big change is Biden,” said Kim Hyun Wook, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, a research body attached to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Barack Obama did not want to confront China. Donald Trump wanted to confront China, but did not care if America’s allies joined it. Biden wants to confront China, but he also demands that America’s allies get involved. This forces Seoul to choose. ”
The debate over South Korea’s ambitious $ 275 billion defense modernization program illustrates the greater uncertainty about its strategic direction.
Seoul’s development of a large “Blue-water” fleet, coupled with a greater willingness to participate in joint military exercises with the US and other Asian and European allies, indicates a desire to play a more active role in local security.
But defense analysts said South Korea’s military build-up was driven as much by fears of US abandonment and suspicion over Japan’s long-term intentions as by any desire to pursue Washington’s efforts to crack down on Chinese aggression. to close.
“South Korea continues to hedge just as a declining US must reap the maximum benefits from all its alliances,” said Euan Graham at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“There is frustration for the US that South Korea is developing all these amazing capabilities and amazing technology, but it is not going to play a role in a grand coalition against China unless China obviously overloads its hand thoroughly.”
Similar concerns have been expressed about South Korea’s absence from the Quad.
But S Paul Choi, founder of the Seoul-based political risk advisory firm StratWays Group, argued that South Korea’s preference for low-key bilateral diplomacy should not be misunderstood as a departure from US goals.
According to the May summit in the White House between Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Seoul is prepared to pursue the same goals as the Quad, albeit in its own way.
“You have a new agenda in US-South Korea relations, reflecting that of the Quad when it comes to climate, health safety, 5G and 6G technology, supply chain resilience, and so on,” Choi said. .
“What would be the difference if South Korea joined the Quad: a membership card?”
Since the Moon-Biden summit, several South Korean conglomerates have announced major US investments in sectors identified by Washington as strategic priorities.
But June Park, a political economist at Princeton University, expressed skepticism that the investments would mean a decisive shift.
“It’s not just Korean policymakers who are entrenching themselves between the US and China – Korean business leaders are doing the same.”
Cha, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said which direction Seoul is following next depends on the 2022 presidential election.
“The [leftwing] the ruling party is less hard on China, has difficult relations with Japan and does not want to be part of the Quad or other coalition groups, while the [rightwing] opposition wants to be tougher against China and to work more closely with the Quad, if not join the Quad. The outcome will have consequences for both South Korea and the United States. ”
But Kim at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy suggested that a decision had already been taken, describing the Moon-Biden summit as a ‘very important paradigm shift’.
‘Korea chooses the United States, but there is still a lot of doubt about America’s hegemonic capabilities. The thought is ‘OK, we’ll go together’. But in our minds there is a question: will you really be able to defend us if things go wrong? “