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The Peninsula

AUKUS, Alliance Coordination, and South Korea

Published January 4, 2022
Category: South Korea

The AUKUS trilateral security partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States has been received with much international attention, as well as concern. Under the pact, Australia has been formally granted capacity as a third country to acquire nuclear-powered submarines—the first of such case since the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement between the US and the UK. Consequent discussions within the South Korean policymaking community following AUKUS have primarily centered on Seoul’s potential to follow Canberra as it is currently prohibited from building nuclear-powered submarines under the existing agreement with Washington. Yet, in addition to these discussions, AUKUS raises crucial questions related to alliance management as South Korea anticipates the upcoming presidential election in March 2022.

Since his presidential campaign, President Moon Jae-in has stressed the North Korean submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) threats, and South Korea’s “need [for] nuclear-powered submarines in this era” in countering them. His previous efforts have included discussions with former President Trump, which failed to result in anything substantial, and for good reason. One of the main obstacles for South Korea is its prohibited access to enriched uranium—which is necessary for fueling nuclear-powered submarines.

With AUKUS there have been increased demands by South Korean experts for the US to lift such prohibitions and grant Seoul similar access to nuclear-power submarine technology. These demands have been coupled with two different approaches by South Korea’s presidential candidates—the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung and the conservative People Power Party’s Yoon Seok-youl. In early November, Yoon stated that South Korea does not need nuclear-powered submarines at the moment. Meanwhile, Lee has pledged to take on the Moon administration’s efforts by building the submarines, and promote a more “multidomain approach” to South Korea’s national security against emerging traditional and non-traditional threats.

In addition to ongoing discussions on nuclear-powered submarines, however, AUKUS also raises critical questions regarding alliance management. While the addition of Australia-borne submarines themselves may not necessarily tip the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific towards the US, AUKUS is considered an integral part of Washington’s greater effort to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy in its strategic competition with China. It builds on the Five Eyes intelligence alliance among the US, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and Australia, which is utilized for sharing wide-ranging defense technology beyond nuclear submarines. AUKUS hence adds weight to the US strategic competition with China through greater technology and economic access to regional defense supply chains. Furthermore, while AUKUS is fundamentally separate and different from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), its goals are also complementary to the minilateral partnership in balancing China.

In addition to strengthening various facets of minilateral partnerships, however, AUKUS also provides an important lesson on alliance coordination for middle power countries including South Korea. In fact, the process of its implementation initially damaged the overall trans-Atlantic alliance, and mainly that with France. AUKUS—by steering Australia away from its original defense agreement with France—critically undermined Paris’s own regional efforts to form an “Indo-Pacific axis” through India and Australia, which had been underway since 2018. And although France ultimately shares similar goals as the US and its allies in counterbalancing China’s growing influence, AUKUS not only incurred 65 billion USD worth of financial loss for the country, but also significantly discouraged its willingness to contribute in US-led Indo-Pacific efforts.

These observations raise further concerns for South Korea and its middle power ambitions going forward. Some experts have argued that Seoul’s strategic ambiguity and balancing between the US and China have prevented it from being granted the same opportunities as Australia, which has “long advanced its role as a ‘dependable ally.’” Likewise, others have prompted the following consideration for South Korea and its future foreign policy trajectory: should South Korea pursue the “Australian” way (of building up alliance capabilities) and gain certain privileges including defense technology, or should it instead opt for the “French” way (of strategic autonomy) and end up with grave detriments?

Thus far, the Moon administration has been pushing for a national defense strategy based on self-reliance. Since his inauguration in 2017, President Moon has boasted highest-ever defense spending in South Korea’s history, greenlighting several high-technology weapons including a submarine-launched ballistic missile. As a part of its defense outreach efforts, South Korea also signed a record $717 million defense deal with Australia, which has helped to address some of its overdependence issues with China on critical mineral supplies. Yet while both South Korea and Australia reaffirmed their joint commitment towards regional security cooperation through the deal, the Moon administration has clarified that such defense capabilities primarily serve “for the autonomy of [South Korea] stuck between great powers.”

The detailed foreign policies of President Moon’s two potential successors have not yet been laid out in full, but still provide initial insights into South Korea’s future trajectory. In addition to their different views on nuclear submarines, Yoon Seok-youl and Lee Jae-myung have proposed varying approaches to diplomacy and alliance coordination. Yoon’s foreign policy is grounded on prioritizing the US-ROK alliance. During a press conference in November, he even proposed that South Korea cooperate with Five Eyes, participate in working groups of the Quad, and aim for a “gradual participation” in the forum. He has also vowed to take on a position of “strategic clarity” in aligning with universal values and against China. On the other hand, Lee aims to largely continue the Moon administration’s path of self-reliance, with an emphasis on domestically driven pragmatism. In addition, under Lee, it is likely that South Korea’s strategic ambiguity between the US and China will also continue as he opts for a balanced diplomacy.

Overall, AUKUS provides critical considerations for South Korea as it anticipates the March 2022 presidential election. The question should not only be relegated to whether or not Seoul deserves certain defense technologies, but extend to address the foreign policy path and middle power role that South Korea should aim to pursue within the larger alliance framework.

Sea Young (Sarah) Kim is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute and visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington for the East-West Center-Korea Foundation U.S.-ROK Cooperation in Southeast Asia program. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Defense Imagery’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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