South Korea’s Non-alignment Strategy: Sino-U.S. Competition

Published by

Alice Valioulis


July 21, 2021

Inquiry-driven, this article reflects personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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In a strategic game, which involves an elimination procedure, all players must make smart decisions to stay afloat and eventually, rise as winners. Τo do so, it is essential that they distinguish the sharks from the group. The smaller fish can then take three different courses of action to ensure their survival: attempt to befriend one of the sharks, coalesce against the sharks with other similar fish, or adopt a neutral position and maintain good relations with all members. 

In the international world, according to Realist Theory, these three diverse routes can be defined as bandwagoning, balancing, and hedging, respectively. A diplomatic person will probably choose to hedge; he will not fully align or antagonize with anyone in order to avoid being caught in the crossfire. A masterful diplomat in the international arena, in recent years, has been the Republic of Korea (R.O.K). The country has strategically hedged in response to the rising Sino-U.S. competition in the Asia-Pacific region.

Sino-U.S. Competition

The growing rivalry between China and the United States for regional hegemony in East Asia has been intensified due to Beijing’s rapid military and economic rise - leading to the relative decline of Washington. China, aspiring to become soon the largest economy in the world, is nowadays the main trading partner for East Asian nations (including Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan) and has been strengthening its economic ties with them through the Belt & Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest free trade agreement that excludes the U.S. (Sacks, 2021; Gunia, 2020). On the military side, China has not only been increasing its militarization of vital trade routes in the South and East China Sea, but its weapon systems and nuclear capabilities are also expected to become superior to the U.S in the coming years (Seldin, 2021; Ioanes, 2019). As a result of this great power rivalry, Asian countries are left to choose between them for economic and military cooperation. South Korea, by strategically hedging, has been able to benefit economically through its trade relationships with Beijing, while also maintaining regional security through its ties with Washington. 

 R.O.K- U.S Relations for Regional Security

South Korea engages primarily with the U.S. for security purposes. Their security alliance was formed through the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953, at the end of the Korean War. The R.O.K remains, to this day, America’s traditional security ally and hosts approximately 30,000 US troops in its territory (Gallo, 2021). The two countries hold annual military exercises through a combined command structure and close consultations between senior leadership officials on security issues. 

South Korea places great value in this partnership, primarily to deter North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), who has increased its nuclear and missile capabilities over the years. Aside from promoting peace and stability in the Korean peninsula, Seoul has a strong interest in fostering security ties with the US in order to maintain an open and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific; approximately 90% of its oil imported from the Middle East passes through the Indo-Pacific Oceans, as well as 30% of its exports and imports (Park, 2021). Therefore, China’s growing military footprint in the East and South China Seas poses a security threat. Seoul seems to remain committed to the R.O.K-U.S. security alliance, as it has agreed to increasing its financial investments, in the coming years, to sustain Washington’s military presence in Korea; its contributions are expected to reach USD $1.3 billion by 2025 (Snyder, 2021). Moreover, despite China's objections, the R.O.K continues to participate (since 2017) in the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a US-led regional anti-ballistic missile defense system. During the summit between President Biden and Moon in May of 2021, both leaders expressed support for expanding cooperation in other security areas including critical technologies, cybersecurity and global health (Yoon, 2021). Under their vaccine partnership, the U.S. is planning to invest in R.O.K-based production vaccine facilities to boost the global distribution of  US-developed vaccines through South Korean pharmaceutical companies. The Presidents also committed at the summit to preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait and the freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas. 

R.O.K-China Relations for Economic Prosperity 

The R.O.K also faces strong motivations to maintain good relations with China, in order to promote its economic prosperity. Beijing is currently Seoul’s largest trading partner and destination for foreign direct investment (CRS, 2021). In recent years, the R.O.K has increased its economic ties with China. It has joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral development bank that China has established to finance infrastructure projects in developing nations in Asia. The R.O.K is also part of the Belt & Road Initiative, China’s signature infrastructure project and, along with ASEAN nations, it participates in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership , or RCEP (Kim, 2018). This trade bloc covers 28% of global trade and global GDP and brings Asian countries closer into China’s economic orbit, strengthening China’s geopolitical influence in the region (Flach, 2021). The R.O.K already has a free trade agreement (FTA) with China, and China’s Commerce Military has identified accelerating talks for a China-South Korea FTA as a priority for this year; a  move that would further deepen trade relations between China-R.O.K (Chunding, 2021).

It is also important to note that Seoul has incorporated Huawei in its 5G network, despite Washington’s pressure against it. The R.O.K is careful with its politics to avoid antagonizing China. This is a lesson learnedt from 2016 when the country deployed the THAAD system; China retaliated by imposing economic sanctions on Korean products, ranging from tourism to entertainment, leading to USD $7.5 billion of economic losses (Kim, 2021). There is no question, therefore, as to why the Moon Administration is one of the few democracies that has refrained from criticizing the human rights violations in Xinjiang and the democratic erosion in Hong Kong. 

Final Thoughts

South Korea is not putting all its eggs in one basket by bandwagoning with China. Indeed, sustaining good relations with China, a leader in global supply chains, is critical for R.O.K’s economic prosperity. But having the U.S. as an ally is also crucial in safeguarding the country’s security, deterring potential nuclear attacks by North Korea, balancing against China’s assertiveness in the area, protecting intellectual property, and holding China accountable for its illegal activities under international law. Given the circumstances, it is highly probable that Seoul will continue to strategically hedge in the future. 

We ought, though, to keep an eye on the 2022 Presidential election; the current administration is becoming increasingly unpopular (Moon’s ratings have fallen to 32.2%) and anti-Chinese sentiments among the Korean public have been building up over the past years, reaching 75% in 2020 according to a Pew Research Center report (Kim, 2021). The main conservative opposition party, People Power Party, has advocated for the strengthening of the US-R.O.K alliance, and a more hawkish approach towards Beijing. 

The upcoming elections will be critical in determining Korea’s foreign policy.

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Alice Valioulis

2022 Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

Alice Valioulis is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, double majoring in Foreign Affairs and Public Policy. Her goal as a writer is to produce thought-provoking articles and cover diverse perspectives. She is excited to explore the world of public policy.

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