KIMS Periscope No. 297
Geography and strategy in the U.S.-China Geopolitical Divide: The Case of South Korea
노르웨이 국방연구소 수석고문
Jo Inge Bekkevold
The return of bipolarity
Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski observed already in 2012 that the economic and military rise of China justified ranking it just below the United States in the international hierarchy, and above any other state. Since then, we have witnessed the emergence of an increasingly distinct bipolar power structure in the international system, with the United States and China as the two dominant states. China has not only narrowed the power gap to the United States, it has also widened the gap to all the other major powers. Today, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) in nominal figures roughly accounts for seventy-five percent of the U.S. economy, whereas measured in purchasing power parity (PPP) China is the largest economy in the world. U.S. defense spending is still two to three times larger than China’s, but this gap is mainly due to China spending only half as much of its GDP on defense compared to the United States.
Observers often point to Russia as a pole in the international system, but China’s GDP is now ten times larger than that of Russia, while its defense budget is roughly five times larger than Russia’s. In fact, the current distribution of capabilities in the international system resembles that at the start of the previous U.S.-Soviet bipolar system, in the early 1950s.
The contours of the Cold War bipolar power structure were evident already towards the end of World War II, but it was three major events in 1949-1950, the Communist revolution in China, the Korean War, and the founding of NATO that established the U.S.-Soviet divide as a global phenomenon. In a similar fashion, even though the international system has been moving towards a new bipolar structure for a number of years already, three major events in 2022, the Russo-Ukrainian War, NATO identifying China as a security challenge, and the Taiwan Crisis, have enhanced a new U.S.-China geopolitical divide.
Ukraine, NATO and Taiwan: Enhancing the divide
The War in Ukraine is both accelerating and consolidating the geopolitical divide between the United States and allies on one side and a Sino-Russian axis on the other. It does so in three major ways. First, the war in Ukraine increases Russia’s dependency on China, which is a concern in Washington and European capitals. The Sino-Russian partnership has steadily improved during the last decade, including growing economic cooperation, an energy partnership, military exercises, high-tech collaboration, and regular high-level meetings. China is Russia’s number one trading partner, and China now imports more crude oil from Russia than from any other country, with natural gas deliveries expected to grow quickly through new pipelines. With Russia now largely isolated from the West, the war in Ukraine strengthens China’s sway over a weakened Russia. Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership is most likely frustrated over Russia’s misconduct in Ukraine, but close ties to Moscow still has great geopolitical value for Beijing. Russia is weak in Asia, so Moscow’s value for Beijing is not in its military assets in the Far East or the support it may give in a Taiwan contingency. Rather, Beijing values close ties with Russia for three other reasons; Through keeping its strategic rear to Russia safe, China can channel more strategic resources into its naval rivalry with the U.S.; Russia’s coercive behavior in Europe forces the United States to maintain a two-flank posture; and Russia is rich on natural resources.
The war in Ukraine also intensifies the Sino-U.S. economic divide. The swift Western response sanctioning the Russian economy after its invasion of Ukraine has escalated Chinese concerns about its dependency on Western technology and markets, and motivated China to increase its self-sufficiency. Finally, the war in Ukraine solidifies a hardened European view of China as a potential security threat. Security issues have traditionally occupied a minor role in Europe’s outlook on China, but this has recently started to change. The Sino-Russian declaration of an “unlimited partnership”, issued in Beijing on February 4 just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has in particular met with unease in Europe. Many Europeans view the declaration as proof of China’s unqualified support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The second major event in 2022 enhancing the U.S.-China divide is NATO’s new Strategic Concept adopted at the Madrid Summit in June. In the concept, the alliance officially identifies China’s ambitions and coercive policies as a challenge to its members’ interests, values, and security. For the first time since the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, Europe now views an Asian power as a direct security threat. NATO’s decision suggests that the European outlook on China is closer to the U.S. perspective than ever before. Nonetheless, it does not necessarily imply that NATO forces will rebalance to Asia. Despite China’s rise, Russia remains Europe’s main security challenge, and European nations largely lacks weapon platforms to engage in a naval rivalry in Asia.
The third major event strengthening the new geopolitical divide is the Taiwan Crisis. Although triggered by U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s’ visit in early August, the current Taiwan Crisis is mainly the result of Beijing and Washington adjusting to China’s growing power and military build-up. For all its earlier huffing and puffing on the Taiwan issue, China never really had the military capabilities to take control of the island by force. It does now. Under Xi Jinping’s reign, China has established a new normal in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and now also in the Taiwan Strait. This development not only alters the military balance of power between China and the United States in the Western Pacific, it also intensifies the superpower rivalry.
In a bipolar international system with a distinct geopolitical divide, second tier states and middle powers will find it difficult to maintain strategic ambiguity. These states are compelled to choose side in the rivalry between the two superpowers. Facing a rising power in its geographic proximity, a second tier state is expected to respond by entering into a form of security alignment with another great power, if available. During the Cold War, due to the heartland position of the Soviet Union, second tier states along the entire Eurasian rimland, from Europe, through the Middle East and South Asia to the Far East, had to take this into balance of power logic account. In the current U.S.-China bipolar system, due to China’s more limited geographic reach, the pressure to lean to the one side will be particularly strong in the geographic core of the superpower rivalry, in East Asia.
South Korea is thus expected to respond to China’s rise by maintaining and strengthening its security alignment with the United States. Nevertheless, in the new U.S.-China bipolar rivalry, South Korea has a unique geopolitical position, which differs from during the Cold War. Together with Thailand, South Korea is the only nation on the Asian mainland in a security alliance with the United States. This compels South Korea to maintain a more nuanced balance in the U.S.-China rivalry than offshore island states like Japan and the Philippines.
Geography and strategy
Geography is the most enduring factor informing state strategy, but the advantages and disadvantages of a country’s geographic location may vary, depending on shifts in the balance of power in its proximity. Indeed, South Korea’s geopolitical context in the era of U.S.-China rivalry differs from during the Cold War in two major ways. One obvious difference is that South Korea now hosts U.S. troops, whereas at the outset of the previous bipolar system during the Cold War the United States declared South Korea to be outside of its defense perimeter in Asia, only to adjust its strategy during the Korean War. Hence, in terms of alliance availability, South Korea is in a stronger position today.
The other major difference is that the United States now faces a rival located in the Eurasian rimland, and not in the heartland, and this may have long-term consequences for South Korea. The Soviet Union constituted a threat to all Asian rimlands, South Korea included, but Moscow did not control the Asian rimlands. Moreover, the Soviet Navy never had command of the ocean in the Western Pacific. This enabled the United States to balance the Soviet Union on the Asian mainland, through intervening in Korea, and later in Vietnam, and to play the ‘China card’ against the Soviet Union. The contemporary geopolitical context is different.
Today, the United States faces a rival that controls the Asian rimland. China is now the dominant land power in Asia, and Russia, the other major land power in Northeast Asia bordering the Pacific Ocean, accommodates China’s rise. In addition, China is building sea power that challenges the U.S. naval supremacy in the Western Pacific. Today, it is more challenging for the United States to influence developments on the Asian mainland than what was the case during the Cold War. In the next 5-10 years, the naval balance between China and the U.S. is likely to continue tilting in China’s favor, at least in China’s near seas. In a long-term perspective, this may have implications for U.S. alliance partners on the East Asian mainland, meaning South Korea and Thailand. Geopolitics thus compels these two nations to pursue a more nuanced balance in the U.S.-China rivalry than states located along the first island chain in the Western Pacific, meaning that they to a larger degree will seek to reassure and accommodate China on certain issues.
Jo Inge Bekkevold는 노르웨이 국방연구소 (Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies)의 수석 고문이며, 동아시아 여러 근무지에 파견되었던 전 노르웨이 외교관이다. Bekkevold의 연구는 중국의 부상의 지정학, 강대국 관계 및 아시아 안보에 역점을 두고 있다. 그의 최신 저서는 S. Kalyanaraman과 공동으로 편집한 “인도의 강대국 정치: 중국의 부상을 감당하기 (India’s Great Power Politics: Managing China’s Rise)”이다 (런던: 폴그레이브, 2021).
- Howard W. French. “On a U.S.-China Détente, Don’t Believe the Hype”, Foreign Policy, November 16 2022.
- Maxwell Bessler. “Demystifying the Debate on U.S-China Decoupling”, CSIS, November 16 2022.
- Jo Inge Bekkevold. “NATO’s New Division of Labor on Russia and China Won’t Be Easy”, Foreign Policy, July 11 2022.
The author’s opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and does not reflect the view of KIMS.