Taiwan is one of the most sensitive issues concerning China, so it was with some surprise to see it raised at the U.S.-ROK summit held in May. Underscoring shared support for the rules-based international order, the joint statement released after the summit said: “President Biden and President Moon emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” While Korea has been reluctant to sign on to initiatives that challenge China, experts say it will be harder for Seoul to continue making that choice.
While Taiwan has not been previously mentioned as a critical bilateral concern, experts do not expect any significant changes to South Korea’s position towards the island or China. “That public statement of concern, I think speaks quite loudly to Seoul’s own growing concerns with how things are developing there,” said Michael Mazza, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. But I-wei Jennifer Chang, a research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, said that the lack of specific details in the joint statement suggests it was largely a “symbolic” concession on the part of Korea. “Many Taiwanese analysts…view Seoul’s action as a means to have cooperative relations with Washington in order to advance its more urgent priorities regarding North Korea,” she said.
Having faced Chinese economic retaliation for deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in 2017, South Korea has shied away from sensitive issues for China like Taiwan. Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and professor at American University, says the physical distance between South Korea and Taiwan may be used as justification not to become involved in a dispute with China. “We might see Koreans who are…just looking at the Taiwan issue as it’s not something that concerns their immediate interests,” she said. “It’s easy for them to kind of put it on the back burner because it’s not going to affect them.”
But a contingency in the Taiwan Strait would affect South Korea. This is most clearly demonstrated by Taiwan’s key geostrategic location in the South China Sea. Col. David Maxwell, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out that Seoul has a vested interest in maintaining open sea lanes for commerce and communication. “If there is a major conflict in Taiwan, or if China tries to somehow restrict shipping in the region, it will have an economic effect on, not only South Korea, but of course Japan as well,” he said.
There would also be a diplomatic cost for Korean refusal to become involved in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Like Taiwan, Korea has traveled a long road to establish its open society, where the rights of the individual are respected. “What does that say about Korea” if it chooses not to defend a fellow democracy, Professor Kim asks rhetorically. “Is it really upholding the values and the obligations that come along with being a democratic society, but also an ally of the United States, which represents freedom, human rights, individual liberties, and all that good stuff?”
Despite South Korean fears of being dragged into a conflict with China, experts say Washington would likely not ask it to deploy to defend the island of Taiwan. “I don’t think that there’s much expectation that South Korea will contribute directly to that fight,” said Mr. Mazza. “I think from an American perspective, we need South Korean forces to hold down the fort on the Korean Peninsula since our attention is going to necessarily be directed elsewhere.”
Although South Korea does have significant military capabilities, experts say that they would be better focused on deterring Pyongyang from taking advantage of a regional contingency. “I could make a case that South Korea’s Aegis ships, South Korea’s F-16s, South Korea’s F-35s could all contribute to a military role in Taiwan, but that would weaken South Korean deterrence and defense” said Col. Maxwell. Because of North Korea’s existential threat to the South, he says Seoul’s first priority must be “to deter war and if deterrence fails, to fight, defend Korea, and win the war.”
While Seoul has not prioritized developing its engagement with Taipei, there are areas for fruitful collaboration to advance mutual interests. Similar concerns over economic dependence on China means that South Korea should work to advance its trade relationship with Taiwan. “The main area that I think would be interesting to watch would actually be related to the supply chain resiliency discussion, because Taiwan and South Korea are both important semiconductor producers,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Although the Korean Samsung and Taiwanese TSMC are competitors in the chip manufacturing sector, “the demand for chips is just exploding,” observed Michael Fonte, Director of the Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party Mission in the U.S. “Perhaps there could be more sharing of the pie.”
Experts also say that the Global Cooperation Training Framework is another area to cultivate relations between Korea and Taiwan. Established under the aegis of the American Institute in Taiwan, the GCTF is a series of policy workshops that have allowed Taiwan to share its expertise with other states. Director Fonte said that past topics have included intellectual property rights and disaster relief, among others. “I think that’s where there can be more interaction, because these are not state to state, necessarily,” he said. “These are areas of concern that both countries have to respond to.”
Although China will oppose South Korean efforts to develop stronger relations with Taiwan, experts suggest Seoul will find an understanding partner in Taipei. “Taiwan has the resources, and wants to be a positive player, and hopes that it can continue to develop good relations with South Korea,” said Director Fonte. Ms. Chang also notes that both share interests in avoiding regional conflict in the maritime domain. “There is a need to better integrate the North Korean issue into the larger security framework in the Indo-Pacific region,” she said, “and for Seoul to become an active participant on a range of regional security issues, including those that are driven by Chinese behaviors such as the Taiwan Strait.”
Taiwan is just another area where it will become increasingly difficult for South Korea to appease China. Col. Maxwell says the issue of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is part of larger challenges to the rules-based international order, which is vital to South Korea’s development. “If there’s not success against China and [there is] a threat to the international rules-based order, South Korea is not going to be able to survive and thrive,” he said. “Those who argue that we could appease China and sit at home, and not have to worry about anything, are really signing the South Korean death warrant.”
With President Moon set to leave office next year, it remains to be seen if there will be any changes to South Korea’s approach to the Taiwan Strait. Professor Kim warns that South Korean leaders must think deeply about the choices that they make. “One bad decision sometimes might not really spoil the whole pot, but in situations like this, where Korea is in a very geostrategically important position or location, decisions do matter,” she said.
Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.