South Korea Trapped between China and US

South Korea Trapped between China and US Author: Konstantin Asmolov for Journal NEO

Tensions between the United States and the PRC keep rising. In fact, the confrontation is starting to resemble a “new Cold War”. The relationship appears to have reached a turning point on May 20, 2020, when the White House delivered a report, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China”, to members of Congress.

A substantial portion of the 16-page document is dedicated to challenges posed by the PRC not to US economic interests but its values instead. According to the report, Beijing “sees itself as engaged in an ideological competition with the West” and the Communist Party of China (CPC) “has accelerated its efforts to portray its governance system as functioning better than those of what it refers to as ‘developed’, Western countries”, thus threatening the US leadership role, its national and economic security, and “American values and ways of life”. In conclusion, it states that “the Administration’s approach to the PRC reflects a fundamental reevaluation of how the United States understands and responds to the leaders of the world’s most populous country and second largest national economy”, and that Washington “recognizes the long-term strategic competition” between the two systems. In such a climate, the US goal is to strengthen its position and that of its partners globally so that they can better withstand challenges posed by China. The second aim is to force Beijing to stop or scale back any actions that pose a threat to the interests of the United States and its allies.

On a tactical level, the offensive, targeting China, is taking place on various fronts. The PRC has been accused of concealing the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak during its early stages, and questions still remain about the origins of SARS-CoV-2. In addition, the United States moved to block global chip supplies to telecommunications equipment company Huawei by requiring entities selling it semiconductors made abroad with US technology to get licenses. Another tactic included a US Navy destroyer sailing through the Taiwan Strait. Washington has also shown staunch support to Taiwan since Cai Yingwen was re-elected for a second term as President, and it has even gone so far as to accuse China of violating rights of minorities. The United States has criticized the PRC’s Hong Kong national security law (a piece of new legislation). In response, the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Yi, said the two countries were being pushed toward “a new Cold War”.

The author would like to briefly focus on the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN), a potential alliance aimed at breaking China’s global dominance. And although the name and abbreviation have been made public only recently, the concept first appeared in autumn 2019 if not earlier.

In theory, the EPN will include “companies and civil society groups operating under the same set of standards on everything from digital business, energy and infrastructure to research, trade, education and commerce”. It will unite like-minded nations into an economic alliance and will probably exclude China. Washington is “pushing to create” a union of “trusted partners”, and according to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States is working with Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam”.

The US anti-China stance clearly does not depend on who is in power, since Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has criticized the PRC leadership and President Xi Jinping, personally, as much as Donald Trump has. In fact, Biden has been even more vocal about China’s human rights abuses than the President.

In the current climate, the United States is insisting that South Korea, a US ally, join the anti-PRC alliance. And based on Washington’s stance at present, the ROK is meant to adjust its overall strategy and not simply make a short-term commitment.

First of all, the United States expects South Korea to join the Economic Prosperity Network, and secondly, to expand its military presence. The delivery of new interceptor missiles to a US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) base in South Korea to replace expired ones sparked speculation that the US aimed to upgrade or strengthen the unit. In response, PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian urged “the U.S. side not to do anything” that could hurt his nation’s interests and disrupt China-South Korea relations.

In 2019, the United States officially announced its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, designed to eliminate “nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers” from the Soviet Union’s and USA’s arsenals. Since then, there have been reports that Washington plans to negotiate deployment of such missiles in ally nations, like South Korea. The PRC firmly opposes such moves.

It is worth discussing US President Donald Trump’s invitation, extended to Moon Jae-in, to attend the G7 Summit in September 2020 in this context. And the South Korean leader has accepted it. Earlier, the US leader told journalists that he would like to invite Australia, India, Russia and South Korea to the Summit. And, according to The Korea Times, “the envisaged meeting is likely to serve as an attempt to contain China”.

However, all of these developments have put Seoul in an awkward position. After all, the United States is South Korea’s key ally while China is an extremely important trading partner. The PRC accounts for 24% of South Korea’s exports in dollar terms, while the USA and Japan purchase 9% and 7% of its goods and services, respectively.

It is not hard to predict how Beijing will respond to the strengthening of the military alliance between the ROK and the United States. We simply need to recall China’s reaction to the deployment of THAAD (a ballistic missile defense system) on the Korean Peninsula, and the serious damage to the ROK-PRC bilateral relations as a result of Beijing’s retaliatory measures.

In addition, a dispute with China will automatically result in issues with the DPRK and the cancellation of Xi Jinping’s trip to South Korea. The visit is important for Moon Jae-in since he hopes to improve ROK’s relationship with Beijing and to agree to the easing of restrictions, imposed by the PRC in retaliation for THAAD deployment, during his meetings with the Chinese leader.

In 2016, we saw what trouble Beijing was capable of making for South Korea in response to the latter’s decision to deploy the anti-missile defense system in its territories. And Washington is even more equipped to give Seoul a hard time. Frist of all, just as Beijing, the United States could cause problems for South Korea’s businesses within its borders and exports to the US. There are many proponents of protectionism and import substitution within the Trump administration. Hence, the US President can easily start a trade war with South Korea and even score political points in the process. In addition, Donald Trump could use the US-ROK security alliance to his advantage by pressuring Seoul into paying more for the U.S. military presence in South Korea. The ROK has enough economic problems as it is, and any attempts to worsen them will pose a serious challenge for Seoul.

Additional pressure from Washington could stem from the fact that South Korean elites study in the United States. In 2019, 36,000 Master’s and PhD students from the ROK studied abroad, and 20,000 of them did so in the United States. After all, a Master’s degree from a US university is a desirable qualification for anyone planning to work for any big company. And overall, the South Korean society gravitates more towards the USA, as a partner, than to China.

Finally, there is also damaging information to worry about. John Bolton’s memoir “The Room Where it Happened” has already caused quite a stir in Seoul. If there are more embarrassing new disclosures in store, similar to those in Bolton’s book, which could also portray Moon Jae-in as an incompetent politician following his own agenda, domestic political tensions may rise.

Let us now focus on the timeline of relevant events to see the ongoing dynamics.  In December 2019, Mike Pompeo wrote in an op-ed in Politico Europe that Samsung was “a ‘legitimate’ substitute to Chinese companies in building 5G networks across the European Union, adding that the South Korean conglomerate” competed fairly and was headquartered in a democracy that abided by the rule of law and was accountable for its actions.

On May 20, 2020, the Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, Keith Krach, said in response to a question from Yonhap News Agency that he and South Korean officials had “talked about the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) initiative” back in November 2019, but the discussions had “remained conceptual”.

On May 27, the Special Security Adviser to President of South Korea, Moon Chung-in, pointed out that “South Korea’s alliance with the United States” was “more important than its strategic partnership with China, but antagonizing Beijing” would start a new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula. “Therefore, our hope is this: we want to maintain good relations with both countries,” he added, “We are really hoping the United States and China work together.”

On May 28, Foreign Minister of South Korea Kang Kyung-wha stated “We are well aware of the concerns in relation to the heightening tensions in the international community and its repercussions”.

According to Yonhap News Agency, some days earlier, Deputy National Security Advisor to ROK President Kim Hyun-jong had made imprudent statements “during a meeting with lawmakers-elect of the ruling Democratic Party”. He had said “The deepening U.S.-China conflict makes us embarrassed”.

On June 1, during the 6th Emergency Economic Council Meeting at the Blue House, Moon Jae-in pointed out that the South Korean economy was “under considerable pressure because of growing unilateralism and protectionism and the conflict between the great powers”.

On June 24, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the world was “waking up to the danger of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state”, and “used the example of three South Korean companies to build his case against doing business with Chinese tech giant Huawei” to those interested in their own 5G networks.

On June 25, “in response to concerns about China’s retaliation against US-aligned nations”, Keith Krach said that the United States would “stand with its allies and partners and support them in whatever” they needed. “The Economic Prosperity Network does not prevent members from working with any country or organizations outside the network or tell them to choose between partnerships,” he added.

Naturally, South Korean experts are trying to devise a strategy that will please both of the conflicting parties, China and the US, or that will mitigate any potential losses.  However, saying “We need a new strategy,” is far simpler than describing it in detail and answering not only the question “What to do next?” but also “How to do it?”.

So what will happen next? Officially, Seoul has not yet formulated its position. The author agrees with the view that South Korea “must strike a delicate balance between the two nations by maintaining strategic ambiguity and approaching a number of issues case by case”.

The ROK cannot buck the global trend leading to conflict, hence, a decisive pivot towards the United States despite future retaliatory measures from Beijing is probably the lesser of two evils.  Therefore, as the author has mentioned before, Seoul needs to determine the best way to present the new policy to the public and to try and delay making the hard decision for as long as possible.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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