China-US friction prompts a wave of Seoul searching

President Yoon will integrate economics and security into a new policy, shifting away from strategic ambiguity

Strategic competition between the United States and China has dramatically revealed the vulnerabilities of the ideological and institutional foundations of globalization.

The Biden administration is actively promoting the “reshoring” of production to contain China and alleviate supply chain vulnerabilities. It is also fostering high-tech cooperation with allies and partners – a policy from which South Korea has emerged as a key player.

The cornerstone of expanded cooperation between South Korea and the United States was laid out at the summit between US President Joe Biden and former South Korean President Moon Jae-in in May 2021.

Here the two leaders confirmed they would cooperate in their response to global challenges including Covid-19, the global economic recovery, and climate change.

At a business roundtable, plans for cooperation in semiconductors, batteries, electric vehicles, vaccines, and the space sector were announced.

Despite expanding bilateral ties, the Moon government was cautious about strengthening cooperation with Washington on its regional strategy. His government was concerned that the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy could be misinterpreted as an anti-China coalition.

Bilateral ties

Deciding whether to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) revealed South Korea’s dilemma over elevating bilateral ties with Washington to regional cooperation.

The Moon government pursued strategic ambiguity to separate its national security from the economy. Rather than formally joining the Quad, the Moon government committed to cooperation in areas to which it could substantially contribute.

Seoul’s strategic posture jointly considered South Korea’s major economic dependence on China and the US alliance as a key pillar of security.

The Quad group has flagged its opposition to China’s saber-rattling. Image: Screenshot

This was the idea that South Korea could maximize its national interests by expanding economic relations with China, while also solidifying its security alliance with the US.

Yet since his May inauguration, President Yoon Suk-yeol has pursued an integration of economics and security, shifting away from Moon’s strategic ambiguity.

His new foreign policy stance focuses on the uncertainty caused by emerging security threats, strengthening regional diplomacy to alleviate dependence on China, and pursuing high-tech competitiveness through better global economic governance.

The Yoon government is seeking to upgrade its alliance with Washington into a comprehensive strategic partnership. The changes to the relationship were on display at the South Korea-US summit in May.

Biden’s visit to the country was held just 11 days after Yoon took power in the new presidential office – symbolizing a new chapter in bilateral relations.

Korean peninsula

South Korea’s stance on the Quad changed when, in April 2022, then president-elect Yoon made it clear that, while continuing to pledge South Korea’s participation in the working group, the new government would positively review joining the Quad if invited.

When the Yoon government announced it would jointly launch Washington’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), concerns grew that South Korea’s decision would further hamper peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula.

Critics claimed it ignored the harsh reality of Seoul’s economic dependence on Beijing, but the decision shifted South Korea’s foreign policy from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity.

At the core of the decision was a push to manage the risk of China’s economic coercion.

Regional leaders at the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework summit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

South Korea replaced ‘security with the US, economy with China’ with ‘security with the US, economy with the world’.

The IPEF is a new opportunity and a challenge that requires Seoul to pursue sophisticated economic statecraft that combines diverse policies addressing various areas of interest.

South Korea has reaffirmed itself as an indispensable ally of the US as it seeks to establish a regional rules-based order to govern emerging issues, including the digital economy, climate change, decarbonization, and anti-corruption.

Given that US-China strategic competition is escalating, Seoul should lead the establishment of an inclusive regional and global order, making sure the Indo-Pacific does not fall into a vortex of self-interested competition.

The IPEF will likely face difficulties in setting high standards for emerging issues, but South Korea is in a good position to mediate between regional countries with different interests and capacities.

Strategic flexibility

Still, Seoul needs to pursue strategic flexibility. While strategic clarity has advantages in terms of predictability, transparency, and consistency in foreign policy, an overt focus on strategic clarity may prove to be a diplomatic burden in an era of hyper-uncertainty.

The new government should combine various policies to go beyond the historical dichotomy between strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity in foreign affairs.

Seungjoo Lee is a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.