How Is South Korea Responding to the U.S.-China Rivalry?

South Korea is one of the few countries in Asia, or for that matter, in the world, that has both long-standing historical ties with China and a critical alliance with the United States. This two-sided reality puts unprecedented pressure on Seoul, as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and spills over to affect trade and technology policy. As Asia’s fourth-largest economy, South Korea exported goods worth over $136 billion to China in 2019, comprising a quarter of its total exports. Moreover, since China is North Korea’s only ally and indispensable patron, Seoul must also give careful consideration to the complex Beijing-Pyongyang relationship as South Korea tends to its own ties with China.

South Korea is deeply aware of China’s growing military footprint in East Asia, but so far it has been much less vocal in expressing its concerns than other nearby countries like Japan, for example. Yet the South Korean public is becoming more wary of China. In a Carnegie poll conducted in Seoul in November 2019, only a quarter of those surveyed replied that they trusted China as a unification partner, while almost three-quarters said they did not trust Beijing very much or at all. Relatedly, when asked which countries were likely to be a unified Korea’s biggest threat, more than half answered China. By comparison, less than a third said Japan, and just 8.3 percent said the United States.

Chung Min Lee
Chung Min Lee is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program. He is an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security, defense, intelligence, and crisis management.
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An October 2020 Pew global poll showed that 83 percent of South Koreans had no confidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping would do the “right thing in world affairs.” Today, three- quarters of South Koreans have a negative view of China, compared to less than a third back in 2002. South Korea also stands out because 77 percent of its citizens continue to see the United States as the world’s dominant economic power. South Koreans are increasingly repulsed by China’s extreme nationalism and heavy-handed ways, as shown by the June 2020 national security law Beijing passed to govern Hong Kong.

There are almost daily U.S. and Chinese op-eds imploring South Korea not to tilt toward the other side. While a conservative government in Seoul may place a greater emphasis on the U.S. alliance, it is in Seoul’s interests to preserve its current balancing act. It will cautiously air some concerns about China’s growing political and military power, while also quietly taking decisive actions such as building up its defense budget and implementing longer-term force improvement measures.

Mindful of Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang as well as his country’s own complex ties with the North, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the South Korean government continue to stay silent on North Korea’s human rights abuses. However, as one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies, South Korea cannot decouple itself from its core values of democracy and freedom. In the end, these fundamental values will ensure that South Korea does not disappear into China’s orbit.

For South Korea to maintain strategic leverage vis-à-vis China, it makes sense for Seoul to sustain its alliance with Washington and, despite strained ties with Tokyo, strive to strengthen U.S.–South Korean–Japanese security cooperation. While a rapid U-turn in Japanese policy toward South Korea is unlikely under new Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, Moon should not let South Korea–Japan ties languish in a deep freeze as he enters the final quarter of his presidency.

How Does South Korea’s Relationship With China Differ From India’s and Japan’s?

India’s and Japan’s relations with China have become increasingly tense in recent years. But South Korea has less strategic leeway with China than these other two nations, which are both members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, along with the United States and Australia. Unlike these major powers, South Korea must carefully nurture its relations with China. Meanwhile, Seoul is quietly focusing on improving its military in response to Pyongyang’s threats and China’s growing military footprint.

While India and Japan also have extensive economic ties with China, it is much more difficult for South Korea to drastically lower its economic dependence on the Chinese market. South Korean firms got a taste of China’s economic wrath over missile defense, when the countries had a year-long stand-off over a U.S. missile defense system that was deployed in South Korea. In response to this bruising experience, more South Korean companies are thinking about moving manufacturing hubs out of China and relocating these operations to countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.

One should also consider South Korea’s place in light of its geographic position at the southern tip of a critical Eurasian peninsula. As Eurasia grows in importance, including a de facto Sino-Russian strategic entente, South Korea will continue to play an important role in helping prevent China and Russia from wielding outsize influence over great stretches of Eurasia. While South Korea’s leverage is limited by its middle-power status, it serves to quietly bolster U.S. interests in the most important subregion of Eurasia. Apart from South Korea, the United States has no other treaty ally in mainland Asia that has been willing to host a persistent U.S. military presence.

What Do Tenser U.S.-China Ties Mean for North Korea?

If U.S. President Donald Trump wins a second term in November, there is a high probability that he will enter into some type of a nuclear agreement with North Korea, given his bromance with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. From Kim’s perspective, Trump has been a godsend, despite the fact that the United States continues to maintain sanctions. He was the first U.S. president to criticize U.S.–South Korean military exercises for being too costly and for menacing North Korea, and he has continually threatened to pull U.S. forces out of South Korea. This is all music to Kim’s ears. Kim is preparing himself for Joe Biden to win the election, but he will be very pleased if Trump gets a second term, especially as Moon’s term ends in May 2022.

Regardless of who wins the U.S. election, the U.S.-China competition is going to continue. Japan and South Korea both will continue to ramp up defense spending and modernize their respective armed forces. This is one long-term driver that Kim will not be able to influence, unless he chooses to denuclearize, which is not going to happen. Worsening U.S.-China ties also encourage a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance.

While Kim may believe that South Korea is going to tilt increasingly toward China, that will not happen for reasons noted above (a mismatch of core democratic values, and the South Korean public’s general suspicion of China). If Biden wins, the window for conducting good faith negotiations with the United States will be limited, since he will not coddle Kim as Trump has. Moreover, as U.S.-China competition intensifies, Kim will be compelled to draw even closer to China for protection, although he would prefer not to. As North Korea’s dependence on China deepens, more tensions will surface between Pyongyang and Beijing, but the immense and growing power gap between North Korea and China means that Pyongyang’s leverage vis-à-vis Beijing will ebb.

What Is North Korea’s Calculation With Regard to Its Relationship With China?

Although it is a major security threat, North Korea is an outlier. And as North Korea drifts closer to China, it is not yet clear how Beijing will respond to Pyongyang. Despite the fact that China supports denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, it has never explicitly called on North Korea to denuclearize, and this policy is not likely to change. But if North Korea conducts a ballistic missile test from a submarine rather than a barge and breaks the self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles, Beijing’s patience will be tested.

At the same time, Kim knows that as the U.S.-China competition deepens, China will need loyal allies, and North Korea is one of the very few countries under China’s wing. Since both North Korea and China have reasons to draw closer, Beijing will not be able to decouple from Pyongyang even if North Korea conducts another nuclear test. Both Xi and Kim are exploiting each other’s strategic needs, regardless of the low level of trust between them.

How Have Regional Views About China and the United States Changed?

Xi’s growing political power and Beijing’s more assertive posture have left many Asian countries feeling wary about China. At the same time, Trump’s erratic foreign policy, outlandish statements, disregard for facts, and total failure in handling the coronavirus pandemic domestically have diminished the United States’ standing across Asia. Even if Asian states are becoming increasingly alarmed by China’s aggressive stances in the South China Sea and continue to see the U.S. regional presence as a stabilizing force, they also realize that U.S. influence has peaked. This is the niche that Xi has so adroitly exploited, with help from Trump’s disastrous policies. Many Asian countries no longer see the United States as a beacon of freedom and democracy, though perceptions will shift if Biden wins.

Most of all, China’s overarching economic strength and growing influence attest to Beijing’s growing disregard for U.S. and European opposition. When China imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong this past summer, Beijing didn’t bat an eye when the United States and the EU imposed minor sanctions.

Washington will be able to partially recover its loss in global standing if Biden becomes president. But it seems increasingly unlikely that the United States will be able to sustain its supremacy without help from key allies. Various strategic concepts are being debated, such as an Asian variant of NATO, but it remains doubtful whether key Southeast and East Asian states will join such a grouping. A more effective strategy lies in strengthening manufacturing supply chains that aren’t highly dependent on China and forging much closer intelligence networks with allies such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea. On the military side, the United States should support these countries’ advanced, asymmetric military capabilities in fields like cyber warfare and improve defense collaboration to offset China’s increasingly sophisticated capabilities.

Until the 2010s, the United States believed that it would take a long time for China to emerge as a regional peer. In 2020, China is not only a regional peer of the United States, but a nascent superpower that is determined to overtake the United States economically and militarily by the 2040s.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, China is an economic giant, a status that provides it with enormous leverage. For the first time, Washington is responding to Beijing’s military forays. Yet U.S. extended deterrence has weakened, owing to China’s and North Korea’s asymmetrical capabilities. These developments won’t change just because senior U.S. officials continue to castigate China. What is needed is a wholesale reevaluation of U.S. strategy and matching capabilities into the 2020s as well as new roles and missions for U.S. allies to ensure that China won’t become the new hegemon.