Can South Korea and America Find a Common Position on China?


The image two weeks ago of Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in greeting Kim Jong Un in the Korean Demilitarized Zone captivated the world. The impromptu, trilateral meeting promised a restart to nuclear diplomacy and a peaceful resolution to the continued impasse between Washington and Pyongyang. Perhaps it signaled something else as well: a measure of U.S.-South Korean unity on the approach to North Korea. The two presidents agree that high-level, personalized diplomacy currently represents the best way to elicit progress on denuclearization. The test of time will indicate whether they are right, but it is generally positive that Washington and Seoul are aligned on the key threat to their alliance.

China is a different matter. While the Trump administration focuses on strategic competition with Beijing and has arrayed coercive economic measures aimed at producing a bilateral trade deal, Seoul has charted a different path. Stung by Chinese punishment after President Park Geun-hye installed the U.S. terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile defense system, and convinced it must harbor its energy and resources for the North Korean threat, the Moon administration has pursued “balanced diplomacy” to avoid confrontation with Beijing. South Korea’s hedging may be tenable in the near-term, but ultimately, the two countries’ approaches to China will serve as either a lynchpin of the alliance or its Achilles’ heel.

For the two allies to be unsynchronized in their approaches to China misses a major opportunity for productive collaboration. It also ignores the emerging geopolitical reality that the best response to growing Chinese influence across the Indo-Pacific requires a tight choreography among the region’s leading democratic powers. This, by necessity, includes the United States and South Korea. A more robust, allied approach to China is possible, and now — while the North Korea file remains in diplomatic hands — is the time to explore its contours.

South Korean officials will be the first to point out the challenges posed by their geography — bordering a nuclear-armed North, surrounded by strong powers in China, Russia, and Japan, and with its American ally both present on the peninsula and an ocean away.

During the early years of the Park administration, this reality informed a series of strategic decisions that augured a new South Korean relationship with China. South Korean officials expressed hope that closer ties with Beijing — and Kim’s then-estrangement with China — would serve to nudge Pyongyang toward denuclearization. Park, rather than Kim, appeared alongside Xi Jinping at a major Chinese military parade, and Seoul applied to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. South Korea demurred on the American offer to deploy THAAD for fear of offending Beijing, and asked American officials for the diplomatic space to court China.

It didn’t work. Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test in September 2016, and the Park administration shifted its China diplomacy on a dime. Courting Xi was out and THAAD was in. Beijing rained down a series of punitive economic actions on Seoul in response, but Park held firm. Until, that is, Park herself was out and Moon was in.

A few months after Moon’s inauguration in May 2017, South Korea announced its “three nos” policy — no additional THAAD deployment, no signing on to an integrated U.S. missile defense network, and no formation of a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan — as part of its reconciliation efforts with China. Since then, Washington has expressed great concern with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, while Seoul indicated its openness to joining the effort. The Trump administration has banned Huawei’s investment in America’s 5G network and strongly urged others to follow suit, while LG UPlus, one of South Korea’s major cellular carriers, announced its decision to partner with Huawei in rolling out 5G networks nationwide.

Other steps by the Moon administration aim to hedge against the vulnerabilities such reliance on China can engender. Seoul has expressed support for Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy and is formulating its own approach to South and Southeast Asia. Its “New Southern Policy” focuses on upgrading existing relations with several key U.S. strategic partners, including ASEAN member states like Indonesia and Vietnam, and with India. South Korea has also stepped up renewable energy development with partners like the United Arab Emirates to address its concerns about energy scarcity. Meanwhile, Seoul is expanding its network of bilateral relations, leveraging a new ASEAN-South Korean infrastructure ministerial meeting and establishing strategic dialogues with France and India.

The United States should help Seoul parlay such initiatives into greater strategic autonomy where possible and work with it to resist China’s coercive tendencies where necessary. Doing so does not require South Korea to enlist in some American-led, anti-China coalition that would render it an adversary of Beijing. Rather, by adopting several positive, guiding principles to strengthen the U.S.-South Korean alliance, both countries will be better equipped to deal with the China challenge.

The first is to deepen bilateral cooperation in new policy frontiers, such as outer space, cyberspace, and defense innovation. Already, South Korea is seeking greater collaboration with the United States in outer space. The government published its first National Cybersecurity Strategy in April of 2019, and South Korea will remain among the world’s most targeted countries in part due to cyber-attacks originating from China, Russia and North Korea. Creating additional expert-level dialogues, at the industry and policy levels, would help communicate best practices — both within South Korea and in third countries — for cyber security and resilience. At the same time, South Korea’s Defense Reform 2.0 foreshadows growing reliance on robotics and artificial intelligence for military purposes. Facilitating more university-level exchanges, modeled after the DARPA robotics challenge, for example, could generate unique opportunities for innovation.

Second, Washington should strengthen the linkages between South Korea’s initiatives in Southeast Asia and its own — as well as those of other like-minded countries. A growing portfolio of cooperative projects in Southeast Asia would imbue the U.S.-South Korean bilateral relationship with new meaning beyond the North Korean threat. Facilitating cooperation between South Korea’s New Southern Policy and Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, for example, would not only strengthen each country’s individual efforts but also bolster regional connections among key countries that share shared democratic values.

Third, the United States can leverage pre-existing partnerships — such as the Five Eyes intelligence alliance — to raise awareness within South Korea about China’s influence campaigns. The United Kingdom and Australia are two prime partners for cooperation. Britain, like South Korea, has wrestled with the decision to allow Huawei to build parts of its 5G networks, while Australia and New Zealand have banned it from doing so. Canberra’s efforts to curb Chinese election interference while maintaining healthy trade relations mirror the dilemmas that South Korea currently faces. Bilateral and trilateral dialogues geared toward developing a shared understanding of Chinese influence efforts could yield approaches for mitigating them.

Finally, it is imperative that the United States facilitate reconciliation between South Korea and Japan. The rivalry between the United States’ two major democratic allies in northeast Asia draws attention and energy from both the North Korean threat and the China challenge. Mutual animosity between Seoul and Tokyo has come to a head in recent months, raising once again the historical issues that have proved so divisive. The tensions have moved beyond the political sphere, with brinkmanship in the Sea of Japan last December and Japan announcing restrictions on the export of high-tech equipment to South Korea.

Amid the frictions there are flickers of hope: President Moon, for example, recently appointed a long-time Japan expert, Cho Sei-young, to serve as a top diplomat in his Ministry of Foreign Affairs. South Korea is also weighing the merits of joining the CTTTP, a regional trade pact that includes Japan. But bilateral ties remain unproductively tense. The Trump administration has largely remained quiet in response, except for trilateral working-level discussions on issues like cybersecurity. Higher-level efforts by the Trump administration to bring the two sides closer — up to and including a trilateral summit meeting — are overdue.

Steps like these can go a long way in aligning American and Korean approaches to Beijing at a time when both are in flux. North Korea understandably commands the lion’s share of focus within the U.S-South Korean relationship, and that is unlikely to change soon. Over the longer run, however, China could serve either as a wedge between two allies with different approaches or as another stimulus for closer cooperation. Leaders on both sides have an interest in ensuring the latter prevails.


Richard Fontaine is Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security. Kristine Lee is a Research Associate in the Center’s Asia-Pacific Security Program. Hannah Suh is the Center’s Chief of Staff.

Image: U.S. State Department