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The Peninsula

What the 'Asia Pivot' Means for South Korea

Published March 22, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Ben Hancock

President Obama this week is gearing up for a trip to South Korea that will see him both participate in the international Nuclear Security Summit and make the short journey from Seoul to the border with North Korea. It’s also his first trip to Korea — indeed, anywhere in Asia — since last November, when his administration trumpeted the “Asia pivot,” a term that still has many in the foreign policy world scratching their heads. This makes now a good moment to reflect on what the “pivot” really means for South Korea, a long-time U.S. ally that already hosts a strong contingent of some 28,500 American soldiers.

It’s seems safe to say that, so far, the pivot has not yielded any concrete outcomes, perhaps other than stronger U.S. military ties with Australia. But even so, many observers have framed the policy as Washington taking an active role to counter-balance the widening influence of Beijing in the Asia-Pacific. Clearly, if true, this is an aspect that would have bearing on South Korea and its neighbor to the north. The questions are: How exactly would this affect the peninsula, and how likely is this effort to yield new results given the current geo-political dynamic?

In concept at least, it seems fairly straightforward that reducing military and economic tension in the Asia-Pacific by having the U.S. reaffirm its commitment to serving as an outside balancer in the region at a time when the rise of China has many worried would be beneficial for South Korea. Any subsequent increased U.S. leverage on China would also probably give Washington a better hand in negotiating with the North on its nuclear program — also a benefit for Seoul.

So that’s a partial answer to my first question. The fuller answer is: it’s complicated.  For example, it’s not really clear whether a new U.S. military focus on the Asia-Pacific would really counter-balance against China, or would simply raise the stakes as Beijing undergoes a leadership transition of its own and seeks to ensure stability and project strength. For that matter, it’s unclear if the pivot truly means an increased U.S. military focus on the region or more of a commitment not to reduce its presence. Similarly, on the economic front, it’s unanswered whether a new U.S.-led trade deal among nations along the Pacific Rim will really pressure China to adopt high standards, or will simply lead it to forge its own deals — with Korea and Japan, for instance.

We may not need to worry about any of that. In answer to the second question, I would bet that the likelihood of new developments under the “pivot” is very low. Though House Republicans are trying to reduce the budgetary impact on the Pentagon, defense cuts of some measure appear to be on the horizon. That seems to rule out a rise in U.S. military might in Asia being a cornerstone of the “pivot” policy. In Korea, it seems likely that the base consolidation now underway will continue along the same course, along with the transfer of wartime command to Seoul.

Next, economics and trade. Obama kicked off the year in his State of the Union with a clear salvo against China in this area, almost undoubtedly because it plays well in an election year. But this approach seems unlikely to further the long-term U.S. goal of convincing China to rebalance its export-dominated economy. This probably means the status quo for South Korea, too, which continues to be interested in making inroads into the Chinese market.  Of course, Korea could make advances on its own by increasing market share and investment in China if bilateral negotiations with Beijing take off. In the meantime, the conclusion of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (in which Korea has shown little interest) is still miles away.

This mix of factors seems to foreshadow a familiar formula for dealing with North Korea as well. Absent any new show of U.S. military might, increased leverage with China economically or otherwise, or real diplomatic maneuvering, what’s to keep the North from playing its old tricks? Not a whole lot, it seems, as evidenced by its return to testing missiles with the purported purpose of sending satellites into space. When Obama looks over the DMZ early next week for the first time since taking office, he may well find himself still puzzled at how to engage such a defiant nation.

This all paints a picture of the “pivot” not meaning very much for Korea in the near term. In fact, it may be more accurate to think of the phrase as the administration’s branding for what it has already accomplished in Asia — joining new dialogues, showing a lot of earnest diplomatic engagement in the region, and passing the KORUS FTA. That doesn’t mean there are no prospects for future developments under this umbrella; if Obama is granted more time to pursue the policy by voters this November, we may yet see it take on new aspects. A positive shift in the direction of the U.S. economy and fiscal situation could also alter the narrative, but neither of those appear to be in the offing any time soon.

Ben Hancock is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He has studied Korean language and culture since 2004, and most recently lived in Korea from 2008 to 2010. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Expert Infantry’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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