Intensifying competition between the United States and China is forcing South Korea, a crucial American ally that has long sought to maintain cordial relations with Beijing, to face a delicate choice.
The Aukus Security Pact between the US, UK and Australia, and last month’s summit of the Quad Group of America, Australia, India and Japan, exemplified the determination of Joe Biden’s administration to rally Washington’s allies in Asia.
But Seoul has avoided such moves for fear of upsetting China, South Korea’s most important economic partner and a powerful player in the security of the divided Korean peninsula.
“The world’s leading liberal democracies come together in this complex patchwork of coalitions, but South Korea is like the shy girl at the ball,” said Victor Cha, Korean president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Australians are on the dance floor; Koreans are sitting by the punch bowl.
Dependent on the United States for its security, South Korea is home to more than 26,400 permanent American troops, the largest Asian deployment of the superpower after its presence in Japan and the third in the world.
Its manufacturing strength and prowess in sectors such as semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries and artificial intelligence make it vital in the eyes of Western policymakers to secure next-generation technologies and global supply chains.
But South Korea’s proximity to China and Beijing’s historic influence over North Korea have long left Seoul keen to avoid drawing the wrath of its neighbor.
This reluctance was exacerbated by the deadly experience of an unofficial Chinese economic blockade after South Korea agreed in 2016 to host a US missile defense system, and by the subsequent threat from the then US president. , Donald Trump, to withdraw American troops from the peninsula in a row because of funding. .
“Given the historical context, Seoul’s reluctance to provoke Chinese anger is entirely 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, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, a research organization affiliated with the South Korean Foreign Ministry.
“Barack Obama did not wish to face China. Donald Trump wanted to face China, but didn’t care if the allies of the United States joined them. Biden wants to take on China, but he also demands that US allies get involved. It forces Seoul to choose.
The debate over South Korea’s ambitious $ 275 billion defense modernization program illustrates the wider uncertainty about its strategic direction.
Seoul’s development of a large “blue water” naval fleet, coupled with a greater willingness to participate in joint military exercises with the United States and other Asian and European allies, indicates a desire to play a role. more active role in regional security.
But defense analysts said South Korea’s military build-up was motivated as much by fear of US abandonment and suspicion over Japan’s long-term intentions as any desire to join Washington’s efforts. to deal with Chinese aggression.
“South Korea continues to cover itself, just as the declining US needs to make the most of all its alliances,” said Euan Graham of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
“The United States is frustrated that South Korea is developing all of this wonderful capabilities and this wonderful technology, but it will not play a role in a grand coalition against China – unless of course China completely over-plays its role. hand. ”
Similar concerns have been raised about South Korea’s absence from the Quad.
But S Paul Choi, founder of Seoul-based political risk advisory group StratWays, argued that South Korea’s preference for low-profile bilateral diplomacy should not be interpreted as a departure from US goals. .
The May White House summit between Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, he argued, indicated Seoul’s willingness to pursue goals similar to those of the Quad, albeit in its own way. .
“You have a new agenda in US-Korea relations that mirrors the Quad’s agenda in climate, health security, 5G and 6G technology, supply chain resilience, etc.,” 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 large American investments in sectors identified by Washington as strategic priorities.
But June Park, a political economist at Princeton University, expressed skepticism that the investments meant a decisive change of direction.
“It’s not just Korean policymakers covering themselves between the US and China – Korean business leaders are doing it too.”
Cha, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the next direction Seoul depends on the 2022 presidential election.
“The [leftwing] ruling party is less harsh on China, has difficult relations with Japan and does not want to be part of the Quad or other coalition groups, while the [rightwing] the opposition wants to be tougher on China and work more closely with the Quad, if not join the Quad. The result will be significant for both South Korea and the United States. “
But Kim, from the Korean National Diplomatic Academy, suggested that a decision had indeed already been made, describing the Moon-Biden summit as a “very important paradigm shift.”
“Korea chooses the United States, but there are still many doubts about America’s hegemonic capacities. The thought is ‘OK, we’ll go with you.’ But deep inside, there is a question: will you really be able to stand up for us if things go wrong?