South Korea’s US–China conundrum

South Korean President Moon Jae-in looks on, during an interview with Reuters, at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea 22 June, 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Kim).

Author: Jae Ho Chung, Seoul National University

Seoul is being pulled back and forth between Beijing and Washington as the two compete for regional influence. South Korea must figure out how to navigate these choppy waters while putting its own interests first.

In the 27 years since diplomatic normalisation between South Korea and China, relations have gone through ebbs and flows. Four principal crises stand out. The first two were the ‘garlic battle’ trade dispute of 1999–2000 and the historiographical controversy over the ancient dynasty of Koguryo in 2004. In 2010, a rift formed after China one-sidedly defended North Korea when it sank the South Korean navy ship Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island. The relationship further worsened in 2016 over South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

The latter two crises were over hard security issues and included third parties (North Korea and the United States), pushing South Korea–China relations into a stage where conflict resolution is more difficult.

Since the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008–2013) prioritised improving the South Korea–US alliance, the succeeding government under Park Geun-hye (2013–2017) found a window of opportunity for rebuilding Seoul’s damaged relations with Beijing. Consequently a view spread that South Korea was tilting toward China at the expense of US relations. Much of the ‘improvement’ through 2013–2015 was an outcome of excessive politicisation of foreign affairs and an exaggeration of the ‘friendship’ between Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But this friendship shattered, perhaps too easily, when THAAD became a thorny issue. Seoul clearly over-estimated the strategic bond it had cultivated with Beijing under the slogan of ‘trust diplomacy’.

Notable among South Korea’s problems is the factor of ‘proxy competition’ between China and the United States. Despite their ever-intensifying strategic competition, the nuclear balance of terror prevents Washington and Beijing from engaging …continue reading