By Anthony Rinna*
Ahead of South Korea’s presidential election in March 2022, Seoul’s balancing act between China and the United States has taken on a distinctly partisan dimension.
The South Korean left has openly favoured Seoul’s so-called ‘strategic ambiguity’, asserting that neither Beijing nor Washington have any claim to use South Korean partnership to advance their great power geopolitical designs. South Korean conservatives, in contrast, are more inclined to criticise China in a manner consistent with the liberal international order, even as trade with China comprises a significant portion of South Korea’s export-oriented economy.
Seoul’s unwillingness to outright align itself with the United States against China does not pose an existential crisis to the South Korea–US alliance as of now. But in the event of a Democratic Party victory in next year’s presidential election, Washington will need to prepare for a South Korean administration less willing to align with the United States against China than it would like.
There is a general bipartisan consensus among policymakers in Seoul that the United States does not duly consider South Korea’s specific interests, particularly on the denuclearisation and unification of the Korean Peninsula. Yet the left and right are divided on how South Korea’s relations with Beijing and Washington factor into the pursuit of its national interests.
Policymakers on the South Korean left have asserted that both Beijing and Washington should consider the country as a crucial actor in Northeast Asia in its own right, rather than a pawn in the quest for hegemony in the Asia Pacific. The US push for South Korea to align with its strategy against China has raised questions about the extent to which the United States values its partnership with South Korea beyond geopolitical ambitions.
In contrast, policymakers on the South Korean right have argued that Seoul’s unqualified support for the South Korea–US alliance — including helping the United States contain China — comprises a key South Korean interest. Prominent members of the South Korean National Assembly, including North Korean defector-turned-lawmaker Thae Yong-ho and senior foreign affairs committee member Park Jin, have slammed Seoul’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ between Beijing and Washington.
While the Blue House publicly stated that the Biden administration appreciates South Korea’s tenuous position, policymakers in Seoul understand that the United States is attempting to enlist South Korea in its strategy to contain China. This was most notable in Washington’s urging Seoul to participate in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and more recent moves in Washington aimed at potentially enticing South Korea to participate in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing pact.
Even if Washington does not explicitly ask Seoul to join the Quad or the Five Eyes, South Korea is well aware that Washington will invariably benchmark South Korea’s relative strategic value against its willingness to cooperate with broader US strategy toward China.
Given the prevailing pro-US sentiment, internal opposition to how the United States views South Korea in terms of strategic value is not anti-Americanism. But a failure on Washington’s part to view South Korea on more equal footing could stunt attempts at developing the South Korea–US partnership to meet current challenges.
The South Korean left has its limits as to how much pressure from China in response to South Korea–US cooperation it is willing to see. Yet as Democratic Party chairperson Song Young-gil recently asserted, the South Korean left, as an official policy platform, believes that Seoul does not face a zero-sum binary choice of having to align with either Beijing or Washington.
The opposition People Power Party’s victories in the April 2021 by-elections may indicate a victory for the conservatives at the presidential polls in 2022, potentially raising hopes in Washington that South Korea will better fulfill its role in the strategic vision of the Indo-Pacific.
Amid fears that the US–China strategic rivalry could sideline Seoul in its bid to take the lead on North Korean denuclearisation, South Korea’s ability to remain at the forefront of these efforts will be an issue of key interest to a left-of-center government. One way the United States could work with a left-leaning administration in Seoul to advance US strategic interests vis-à-vis China would be to allow South Korea more autonomy within the alliance structure to manage its policies toward Pyongyang.
In doing so, Washington could both accommodate the evolution of the South Korea–US partnership and grant the US-aligned South Korea more leeway to operate. This strategy could deter Seoul from drawing closer to Beijing to manoeuvre away from Washington’s overbearing hand.
*About the author: Anthony V Rinna is Senior Editor at the Sino-NK research group.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum