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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 289

Indirect Support : South Korean’s Strategy in the Middle of US-Strategic Competition

미국 국방부 산하 아시아-태평양 안보 연구소
Jo Seong-min

As the strategic competition between the United States and China has intensified, South Korea’s strategic dilemma also has deepened. As a treaty ally, South Korea is expected to support the United States, but it cannot afford to entirely alienate China as the country’s biggest trade partner. Also, Seoul needs to stay in close contact with Beijing for China’s close relationships with North Korea and its impacts on South Korea’s national security. For these reasons, South Korean has tried to maintain a balanced approach between the US and China. But when the other US allies like Japan and Australia strengthens their ties with the United States, South Korea remains relatively close to China in comparison, creating the image of “Pro-China.” How should South Korea manage this problem of strategic positioning between the US and China?

I argue that South Korea clarifies its intent to support the United States but in an indirect manner. There is no doubt that South Korea can only thrive in the rule-based and liberal international order, and it justifies South Korea’s support of the US efforts to maintain the international order in such a way. However, South Korea is situated, except for Taiwan, in the frontline of US-China strategic competition. The more directly South Korea supports the United States, the more likely China will retaliate against South Korea, which will then increase the risk of entrapment for the United States. Therefore, South Korea is better to pursue “soft-balancing” to minimize the risk first, while displaying its strong resolve that the country can join the “hard-balancing” efforts with other US allies if China retaliates.

In the following passages, I critically review the domestic debate about South Korea’s strategy, and introduce the concept of “indirect support” as an alternative strategy. This essay also explains how to apply the strategy to the policy level with example of South Korea’s policy toward Taiwan.

Strategic Ambiguity Versus Strategic Clarity 

The Moon Jae-in government appears to have pursued the strategy of “hedging.” The policymakers of the Moon administration often argued that they pursued a “pragmatic approach” with priority of South Korea’s national interests above all. Therefore, it is not strange that South Korea’s position may vary per issue. However, such an approach caused a confusion for the outside observers as to whether Seoul supports Washington or Beijing on sensitive issues like 5G, Xinjiang, and South China Sea. For example, during the summit with the US President Biden in 2021, President Moon said he agreed on the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, but South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs toned it down as a mere comment on “general principle” the next day. Therefore, the Moon government’s “balanced approach” is often interpreted as exercising “strategic ambiguity.” The problem is that when Japan, Australia, and the Western European allies move closer to the United States, South Korea remains relatively closer to China in comparison. In other words, the Moon government’s “strategic ambiguity” resulted in creating the image of “pro-China” whatever its true intent was.

The Yoon Suk-yeol government clearly recognized this problem. It announced to pursue “strategic clarity” instead. The Yoon government re-emphasizes the US-South Korea alliance and vows to become a “global pivotal state.” Regarding China, the Yoon government would develop the bilateral relationship based on “mutual respect” and “principles.” But such a statement actually refers to the goal of South Korea’s policy toward China, not a strategy. To date, there is no substantive idea offered by the Yoon government about how to make the South Korea-China relationship as the one based on “mutual respect” and “principle.” How would South Korea respond when China does not “respect” South Korea’s sovereignty? What would be South Korea’s counter-strategy against China’s economic or military retaliation for South Korea’s closer coordination with the United States? The Yoon government’s “strategic clarity” still suffers from the lack of China strategy; how to manage the risks associated with China’s coercive statecrafts.

South Korea’s Indirect Support of the United States

South Korea’s optimal strategy to navigate the US-China great power competition should meet two conditions. First, Seoul should clarify its intent to support the liberal and rule-based international order, thereby supporting the US-led efforts to maintain it. Second, at the same time, South Korea’s strategic positioning should be able to make China hesitate from immediately taking punitive actions against South Korea, even with the knowledge of South Korea’s intent to work more closely with the United States.

Table 1. Concepts of Indirect Support

Direct SupportIndirect Support
Issue AreasRelatively more sensitive issuesRelatively less sensitive issues
FrameworkUnilateral or BilateralMultilateral or International Institutions
Interest and OrderUS National InterestsLiberal International Order

Then it is rational for South Korea to provide indirect support for the United States in its competition with China. The strategy of indirect support clearly conveys South Korea’s intent to support the United States, but it also signals that South Korea will do that in an indirect manner. Table 1 provides conceptual definition of indirect support. First, South Korea supports the US positions on the issues that are relatively less sensitive to China. For example, Seoul can invest resources in the US-led efforts on global health security or climate change, even if South Korea’s position conflicts with China’s interests. Second, Seoul may refrain from criticizing China unilaterally or bilaterally with Washington, but it should not hesitate to add voices in multilateral settings. For example, Seoul may not criticize China’s policies in Xinjiang or Hong Kong alone, but it can express the criticism together with multiple countries in G-7 meeting or the United Nations. This approach helps South Korea to distribute the risk of retaliation. Third, Seoul should shape the self-image of supporting the US vision of liberal international order, not the hegemonic interest of the United States.

Washington should accommodate South Korea’s strategy of indirect support from the perspective of regional stability. Among the US allies, South Korea is the closest to China in proximity and connected on land without luxury of “the stopping power of the ocean” that Japan or Australia enjoys. South Korea is also more vulnerable to China’s economic pressure compared to other US allies. This means that South Korea is more directly exposed to China’s tools of retaliation, and the US credibility will be at stake when South Korea is in need of help before China’s retaliation. Since South Korea is situated at the forefront of the US-China competition, the country would better to provide support from the second-line for the purpose of risk management for the alliance system as a whole. The strategy should be acceptable to Beijing. Although South Korea clarifies its intent to support the United States, its indirect manner should signal Seoul’s desire to avoid conflicting with China as much as possible. Seoul can also convey its resolve to expand the unity with US and allies if Beijing retaliates despite Seoul’s self-restraint.

How can the South Korean government implement the strategy of indirect support at policy level? Take Taiwan issue as an example. South Korea can support US efforts to defend Taiwan by engaging with Taiwan in non-military areas first. South Korea can expand its diplomatic ties through senior officials’ visits with each other. It can expand economic cooperation as well, especially in the area of semi-conductor. For example, South Korea’s trade representative to Taiwan remarked that South Korea’s semiconductor exports to Taiwan are mostly memory chips while its imports from Taiwan are mainly non-memory chips. This implies that they can not only compete but also become partners to pursue synergy effects in technological innovation. If a contingency occurs in Taiwan Strait, South Korea can provide rear-area support such as non-combatant evacuation. According to the logic of indirect support, President Yoon should have met with the US congresswoman Nancy Pelosi during her visit to South Korea in August. All the leaders of Malaysia, Singapore and Japan met with her. President Yoon’s meeting with Congresswoman Pelosi could have showcased South Korea’s support of Taiwan in a kind of multilateral setting in practice.

Intent, Signaling and Trust

Critics might argue that the strategy of indirect support is not much different from the Moon Jae-in government’s “strategic ambiguity.” But the strategy of indirect support is distinguished because it clarifies South Korea’s intent to support the US-led efforts in Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, the strategy takes the need of risk-management with China’s potential retaliations more seriously than the Yoon government’s “strategic clarity” approach. In short, the strategy of indirect support is clearer than “strategic ambiguity,” and more prudent than “strategic clarity.” Figure 1 below visually summarizes this observation.

Figure 1. Spectrum of South Korea’s positioning between the United States and China

Last but not least, the strategy of indirect support leaves a room for breakthrough to improve the US-China relationships. As the competition intensifies, the opportunities for strategic dialogue have significantly diminished between the two countries. There are less and less meetings between government officials, military officers, and even think tanks between the US and China. On the contrary, South Korean government agencies and academic institutes still hold events with Chinese counterparts on a regular basis. If one can agree that all US allies do not always have to pursue hard-balancing against China at the same time, then South Korea can reserve a room to broker a deal between the US and China. For these reasons as well, it is optimal for South Korea to take the strategy of indirect support of the US with “soft-balancing” against China rather than direct support with “hard-balance.” However, even to conduct such a “broker” diplomacy, Seoul needs to establish a good line of trust with Washington first. Communicating the strategy of indirect support should be the first useful step.

* The views in this article are author’s only and should not be construed as carrying the position of the US Department of Defense or the US Government.

Dr. Sungmin Cho is a professor of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, an academic institute of the US Department of Defense, based in Hawaii. His area of expertise covers US-China Strategic Competition, Chinese domestic politics, China-Korean Peninsula relations, and the US alliance in East Asia. Dr. Cho has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals, including World Politics, The China Journal, Asian Security, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, and Korea Observer. His commentaries also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Washington Quarterly, and War on the Rocks, among others. Prior to the academic career, Dr.Cho served in the Korean Army as an intelligence officer for three years, including seven-month deployment to Iraq. He received PhD in Government from Georgetown University, Master’s degree in International Relations from Peking University, and B.A. in Political Science from Korea University.

  • The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.

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