South Korea’s balancing act will test Biden’s plan to get tough with China

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Analysis: Seoul’s navigation of geopolitical landscape in east Asia hints at limits of united front with US

Observers say it is unlikely South Korea will go as far as Japan in showing a united front with Washington on the approach to China. Photograph: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty

The Guardian- Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

When the South Korean president goes to Washington DC on Friday, his discussions with Joe Biden about China will test the limits of the US president’s rhetoric to “work with [its] allies to hold China accountable”. It will also exhibit the dilemma faced by middle-sized powers such as South Korea.

The White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, said last month that Moon Jae-in’s visit “will highlight the ironclad alliance between the United States and [South Korea], and the broad and deep ties between our governments, people and economies”.

But observers of the relationship think that, despite the talk of a strong alliance, it is unlikely South Korea will even go as far as its neighbouring Japan in showing a united front with Washington on the approach to China.

Shortly after the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, visited Biden in the US capital last month, a joint statement issued by the two leaders underscored “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan strait” and encouraged “the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues”.

It was the first time since 1969 that Washington and Tokyo had referred to Taiwan in a written statement, a move that some saw as a manifestation of the US’s unity with one of its most significant allies in the region.

Analysts said such a public position on an extremely sensitive subject was unlikely to be found in Moon’s discussion with Biden this week, even though a recent Pew poll showed that 75% of South Koreans feel “somewhat” or “very unfavourable” towards China.

Japan and South Korea confront a common dilemma when it comes to China. They are both key US allies, but both trade heavily with China, said Haruko Satoh of the Osaka School of International Public Policy in Japan, who studies Korea and Japan in the evolving China-US relations.

“[But] if the US-China competition is a given, Japan is more of a balancing power in these new dynamics because of its size of population and economy. By contrast, Korea is a much more vulnerable player, especially considering how dependent South Korea is on China’s vast market,” she said.

For South Korea and Japan, China and then the US are the top two export markets. But Seoul’s economy is even more heavily dependent on Beijing, accounting for nearly 26% of South Korea’s exports last year, followed by the US at 14.5%. Japan exported 22% of its goods to China last year, with 18.5% to the US.

“When it comes to China, South Korea takes a two-pronged approach that pleases both Beijing and Washington,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, the KF-VUB Korea chair at the Brussels School of Governance.

“But the bottom line of Moon’s approach is that he is not going to criticise China so publicly as other US allies have done,” said Pacheco Pardo. “In some ways it shows Biden the limits to how much his allies are willing to be openly critical of China on things such as human rights.”

Ahead of Moon’s visit, his government announced that South Korea would “partially” join the US-led quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad) by cooperating with the forum on coronavirus vaccines, climate change and new technologies. It is noticeable that the security aspect of this involvement is missing.

 

Beijing has repeatedly accused Quad of a US-led clique that reflects Washington’s “cold war mentality”. It has also urged Seoul to clarify its position on it. A ruling party official told Korean press that the US had been asking Seoul to join, “but we think we can cooperate with the Quad countries on a case-by-case basis in fields where we have a contribution to make”.

This half-in, half-out approach has so far proved less direct and confrontational to China – and to some extent more effective, according to Pacheco Pardo. It also reflects old lessons from the past that still cast a shadow over South Korea’s China policy.

Five years ago, when Seoul agreed to host the US anti-missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad), China came up with a host of measures in what analysts believed was economic retaliation. Beijing saw the ultimate target of Thaad as China itself.

One of South Korea’s biggest companies, Lotte, had several of its stores in China shut down overnight for agreeing a land swap deal with the South Korean government for the deployment of Thaad. Online and offline boycotts ensued by Chinese consumers. Chinese tourists – who once flooded the streets of Seoul and Jeju Island – disappeared.

Tellingly, Washington provided little support to Seoul on this matter. “South Korean policymakers felt abandoned at the time. They will now think that if previous US administrations didn’t support South Korea under such circumstances, why would the current Biden administration do so when it happens again?” said Pacheco Pardo.

 

John Nilsson-Wright, a Korea Foundation Korea fellow at the London-based thinktank Chatham House, said: “That is precisely why it’s harder for Seoul to push a security line against China if Beijing holds the bigger sway in market access.”

Shortly after the Thaad saga, South Korea’s then foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, laid out three “noes” in parliament. Two of them were no additional deployment of Thaad, and no forming a military alliance with the US and Japan.

Of course, the issue of North Korea and China’s role in it also sways Moon’s thinking. But there is another reason that could explain his approach to the US and China, according to Nilsson-Wright.

“Like many countries, South Korea has also been asking itself: what if a ‘Trump 2.0’ turns up in the next few years? This would then put South Korea in an even more awkward position having been caught in the middle.”

 

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