This is the first in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations in the run up to the next Korean administration taking office on May 10. The series also includes blogs on relations with North Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia, the European Union, the Middle East, ASEAN, Africa, and Latin America.
By Mark Tokola
A question frequently asked is whether the next South Korean administration will tilt towards China and away from the United States, based on Seoul’s purportedly shifting perception of the relative importance of the two countries. In reality, it is not helpful to judge whether the United States or China are more important to the Republic of Korea. There is no simple reply to the general question and, honestly, there is no reason to answer it.
Decisions are particular and based on practical requirements, not on answering a generalized question about which country is more important than another. For example, Korean military procurement decisions almost always will be based on compatibility requirements with their U.S. military counterparts. Jeju-do tourism authorities probably should look more towards accommodating Chinese tastes than American. A Korean university looking to partner with a cutting-edge, innovative foreign university would be wise to partner with an American rather than a Chinese academic institution (15 of the world’s top 20 universities are American, none are Chinese). Korean construction companies interested in participating in Asian regional infrastructure projects probably should head for Beijing or Shanghai rather than San Francisco or Dallas.
Moises Naim in his book, The End of Power, recommends that everyone should “get off the elevator” and stop obsessing about who is up and who is down. Heeding that advice, we can discuss the challenges that South Korea faces in its relationship with China without re-measuring the distances between Seoul and Beijing, and Seoul and Washington. What is generally true is that South Korea will benefit from cooperative relationships with all three of the countries with which it has the most to gain or lose (exempting North Korea): the United States, Japan, and China.
The imminent question facing the next South Korean administration in regard to its relations with China is what to do about the THAAD anti-missile system. The Park Geun-hye Administration in July 2016 accepted the U.S. offer to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea following North Korean ballistic missile tests. The THAAD system will serve the purpose of protecting U.S. and ROK military installations and key southern sites, such as the port of Busan, which would be used to reinforce allied forces in the event of a conflict. The threat is not imaginary; North Korea has explicitly threatened South Korea with missile attacks. China has vociferously opposed THAAD deployment as running counter to China’s strategic interests and has been explicit that South Korea’s relationship with China will suffer if THAAD is deployed. Along with its public condemnations, Chinese tourism to South Korea has suffered and Korean firms operating in China have been subject to harassment by government officials.
There is a public debate within South Korea regarding THAAD deployment but the smaller part of the discussion is about the cost, effectiveness, or need for the system. Most opposition to THAAD is about whether it is unacceptably damaging relations with China. In the past, there might have been a debate in South Korea about whether THAAD was reducing the prospects of North-South diplomacy, but Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has been so belligerent, unyielding to international sanctions, and uninterested in dialogue with Seoul that THAAD’s effect on inter-Korean relations is barely mentioned. It is all about China.
As a matter of fortunate timing, the next ROK administration will be spared the choice of whether to introduce THAAD to the peninsula. Its hardware has already begun arriving and deployment is well underway. If the new government does nothing, THAAD will be ready to counter potential North Korean attacks within months. It would require a bold decision on the part of the new government to reverse course and dismantle a system that was already in place to defend the Republic of Korea against the North Korean threat. China is still protesting, but there are rumors that the Chinese government is internally reviewing why its tactics failed to prevent THAAD deployment and is now looking forward to get past the problem. China would be ill-advised to begin its relationship with a new ROK administration by pressing it hard with an extremely difficult demand to meet.
That is not to say that THAAD is forever. If U.S. and Chinese pressure succeeded in dragging North Korea to the negotiating table, and if North Korea as a result of negotiations became less threatening to South Korea, there is nothing that would prevent THAAD from being withdrawn from the peninsula. If the military threat THAAD is designed to guard against goes away, it would not need to remain. If China mistakenly but genuinely believes that THAAD represents an American threat to Chinese strategic interest, rather than a North Korean threat to South Korean interest, then it would be clearly in China’s interest to push North Korea in a peaceful direction. The next South Korean government may well point that out to them.
There are other issues that the new Korean administration will need to take up with China. On the economic front, Seoul may point out to China that THAAD-related retaliation against South Korean economic interests, including tourism, imposes costs on both sides and will chill the atmosphere for future economic cooperation. South Korean investors may think twice about whether to put their investment into China given China’s demonstrated use of commercial leverage for political purposes. Large South Korean firms may now also consider it wise to diversify their activity to be less dependent on the Chinese market. Regardless of THAAD, that might be prudent. It will be worth reviewing implementation of the 2015 ROK-China trade agreement to see if it is working as intended. The Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP), which would include both China and South Korea, is still there to be negotiated, and may have new life breathed into it by the U.S.-precipitated collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The next South Korean administration may prefer to stay out of disputes involving China that less directly involve Korean interests, such as the South China Sea territorial issues. That may prove impossible if China’s general regional assertiveness manifests itself in ways that affect Korea, such as the illegal activities of the Chinese fishing fleet, claimed Air Defense Identification Zones, or Chinese interference in maritime freedom of navigation. As a virtual island, because its sole land border is with North Korea, South Korea depends upon air and sea lanes, and the international rules that guarantee their free use. It is less an immediate issue than THAAD, but the next South Korean government may find itself at odds with China regarding China’s quest to exert control over China’s periphery in ways that do not respect the sovereign interests of the countries of the region.
Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.