To be or not to be is the question that confronts South Korea. It is one among many nations that today face a Hamlet-like dilemma in regard to their vision of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).
The Korean Peninsula is no stranger to China’s overweening ambition. China lost a major land-sea battle to Japan in 1895 trying to dominate the Korean Peninsula, and ended up having to cede Formosa (Taiwan) to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki. In 1950, China plunged into the Korean War against a US-led UN force, apprehending a threat from McCarthyism, and created a division that still haunts the region.
Today, Seoul eyes with a sense of foreboding China’s aggression, from the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to India’s land borders in Ladakh. Far from being an “attention-grabbing idea” that would soon “dissipate like ocean foam”, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once put it, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) are acquiring form and substance.
In the wake of the pandemic, the QUAD countries — the US, Japan, India and Australia — have held regular consultations with others in the region, including with South Korea, which is now also being roped into the “Five Eyes” Anglophone intelligence-sharing arrangement, to better contend with North Korea’s military threats. Seoul’s participation in the QUAD PLUS format, both at the official and ministerial levels, highlights its importance as a key member of the liberal democratic and economic order.
There is apprehension in Seoul that China would take a dim view of an alliance partner of the US on its borders embracing a strategy long suspected by Beijing to be a containment ploy. Seoul’s approach to the FOIP is tempered by Chinese sensitivities. After all, China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner and its top investment destination. Besides, the memory of its giant neighbour’s strong-arm tactics is still fresh. As part of its economic coercion during the THAAD crisis in 2017, Beijing had targeted Seoul’s entertainment industry, tourism and particularly, the Lotte chaebol that had provided land for the proposed missile system, resulting in a painful loss of billions of dollars. To ease tensions, South Korea subsequently agreed to “three noes” — no additional deployment of THAAD batteries, no integration into a US-led regional missile defence system and no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan.
The navies of South Korea, Japan and the US have engaged in joint missile warning exercises since June 2016 and joint search and rescue exercises (SAREX) every year. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the three nations have also met several times since July 2014. Ostensibly, North Korea’s provocations provide the binding glue, but Seoul’s unease with suggestions that the trilateral arrangement also factor in China’s provocations is clearly palpable.
The traditional rivalry between South Korea and Japan ensures that a trilateral alliance with the US in Northeast Asia will remain a chimera. Seoul’s unreasonable demands for wartime reparations have led Tokyo to retaliate by curbing exports of critical materials required by Samsung and SK Hynix for the manufacture of dynamic random-access semiconductors (DRAMS), a large part of which, ironically, is supplied by the Korean firms to China’s Huawei for the manufacture of 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems. Such thrusting and parrying between Japan and South Korea nearly wrecked their bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Hopefully, Seoul’s participation in the “D10 Club” summit featuring G7 members, India, Australia and South Korea, will instil greater confidence in Seoul that a collective approach to telecommunications security can succeed in fending off Chinese pressure in 5G systems.
Seoul’s tightrope walk between defence ties with the US and economic dependence on China continues to shape its outlook on the FOIP. During the June 2019 Moon-Trump summit, President Moon Jae-In favoured regional cooperation on the “principles of openness, inclusiveness and transparency” for “harmonious cooperation between Korea’s New Southern Policy (NSP) and the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy”.
South Korea takes a benign view of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), regarding it as an opportunity to capitalise on its own New Northern Policy and Eurasia Initiative. Besides, President Moon’s “New Economic Map” goes beyond an economic vision for the Korean Peninsula. It envisages a regional connectivity paradigm that interlocks with Russia’s New Eastern Policy and Mongolia’s Prairie Road initiative, using China’s BRI as a bridgehead. Notably, Seoul’s membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has facilitated its engagement with China’s many regional initiatives.
For his part, President Donald Trump has not cut South Korea any slack when it comes to leaning on alliance partners to contribute more towards their own security. Although the US-South Korea alliance continues to be the lynchpin for security in Northeast Asia, faultlines have appeared on cost-sharing and Seoul’s demand for a bi-national wartime command headed by a Korean general. These differences add to the divergence on Seoul’s policies towards North Korea and China.
South Korea has vital stakes in the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Its key trade and energy lanes traverse the Indian Ocean. This provides a genuine basis for deeper defence cooperation with QUAD and ASEAN countries. India has already inducted the K9 VAJRA self-propelled howitzer, which has its roots in South Korea’s K9 Thunder. In a welcome development, Seoul has carried out nascent defence projects with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam as well.
A hesitant “middle power”, South Korea is supportive of a US-led rules-based order that preserves peace on the Korean peninsula. Its membership of “MIKTA”, the grouping of middle powers, can boost its ties with Australia and Indonesia in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, given its own mercantile moorings, South Korea tends to regard ASEAN primarily as a trading bloc and secondarily as a fulcrum for a free and open rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
So far, Seoul has displayed scant hesitation in docking multilaterally with the regional economic architecture spearheaded by China. However, when it is abundantly clear that China will never abandon North Korea, however wayward the behaviour of its surrogate, why then does Seoul prevaricate when it comes to aligning with an Indo-Pacific architecture backed by the US?
Seoul cannot continue to sit on the fence for long in the ongoing US-China tug-of-war. Even if decoupling from China in trade proves a hard nut to crack, there is little doubt that the world is rapidly spiralling into mutually exclusive technology spheres that pits China against the US. A top-notch economy like South Korea, regarded as a key potential alternative to China in global supply chains in telecom, digital and AI, can ill afford to procrastinate in taking a decision.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 19, 2020 under the title ‘Seoul and the Indo-Pacific’. The writer, a former Ambassador of India to Japan, is currently the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views are personal