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Can South Korea Find A Middle Way Between the U.S. and China?

By Mintaro Oba

The South Korea-China relationship has its share of ups and downs.  But ultimately, the long-term trajectory of Korea-China ties will always trend upward; the strategic and economic interests bringing the two countries together are too compelling to keep them apart for too long.

As the Korea Desk officer at the State Department charged with following Korea-China relations through many of those ups and downs – from the high of then-President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at the September 2015 military parade in Beijing to the low of the Korea-China dispute over the THAAD deployment – that was the one point I always insisted on including in any briefing to senior officials on the Korea-China relationship.  It’s also the key point the United States neglects today.  Not antagonizing Beijing in order to maintain this mutually beneficial relationship is a key tenet of South Korean foreign policy, and U.S. policymakers hoping Seoul will explicitly back an aggressive U.S. approach to competing with China are headed for deep and profound disappointment.  If the United States wants South Korea to play a constructive and helpful role in its China strategy, it will have to take a more nuanced approach, one that emphasizes implicit balancing over explicit competition.

Like it or not, a closer South Korea-China relationship is a strategic fact of the region.  For South Korea, it’s the logical way to maximize its diplomatic options, trying to get the most out of having good relations with the two major powers in the region and the world.  For China, engaging South Korea is a useful way to disrupt the U.S. alliance system by securing the backing of a U.S. ally for Chinese priorities the United States might not favor (like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) as well as reducing the likelihood it will face a united front from U.S. allies in the region in the event of some conflict.  Economically, too, both countries benefit from access to each other’s markets, and China is South Korea’s largest trading partner by far.

It’s no wonder, then, that we have seen the current Moon Jae-in administration follow in the footsteps of past Korean administration in making moves to strengthen Korea-China ties, too.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, South Korea had been expecting a state visit by Xi Jinping that it hoped would signal a return to strong Korea-China relations after the particularly difficult period caused by THAAD.  Although the pandemic temporarily stymied those efforts, Korea-China relations have been gaining momentum as both countries emerge from the situation and turn their focus back to strategic priorities and restoring economic growth, with President Moon reaffirming that Xi would visit Seoul within the year and the two countries are continuing discussions to expand the scope of their bilateral free trade agreement.

But much to South Korea’s consternation, just as its efforts to engage China return to the front burner, U.S. policy toward China has hardened dramatically. The Trump administration has cited South Korea as a potential participant in its new Economic Prosperity Network initiative designed to sideline China from global supply chains.  Tensions over China’s proposed national security law in Hong Kong also threaten to entangle South Korea.  South Korea has held a special interagency meeting to discuss how to handle U.S.-China tensions.  “If we antagonize China,” warned Moon Chung-in, special advisor to President Moon Jae-in, “China can pose a military threat to us. Plus, China can support North Korea. Then, we will really have a new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.”

The evidence is clear: South Korea’s longstanding interest in maintaining ties with China and its deep-seated fear of antagonizing Beijing on practically everything guarantees that explicit U.S.-Korea counterbalancing against China won’t work.  At the same time, a more competitive mindset about U.S.-China relations is likely to be a permanent fixture of the regional environment and U.S. domestic politics – and if South Korea can’t find some way to accommodate the U.S. strategic interest in countering China, it will find more and more U.S. policymakers questioning the value and fairness of an alliance in which the United States has firmly committed lives and resources to dealing with South Korea’s ultimate strategic priority, North Korea.

Luckily, there’s a middle way: an implicit balancing strategy that focuses on the substance of countering Chinese power and not the optics, creating more space for South Korea to contribute in concrete ways to the U.S. strategy without openly antagonizing China.  How would this work?

First, work with South Korea to help other states gain strategic and economic capabilities that would help them offset Chinese power.   

From helping Indonesia build up its coast guard to help it better patrol its territorial waters, to expanding trade with Vietnam to offset both countries’ economic dependence on China, South Korea’s expertise, economic power, and many advanced capabilities can quietly support other powers in maintaining their independence from China.

To advance these goals, the United States should cooperate with South Korea in a way that invites a Chinese overreaction.  China’s coercive response to THAAD deployment is just the biggest example of how China can turn something South Korea has done for its own security into a contest of sovereignty.  The United States should advance cooperation with South Korea that can serve as tripwires for China to stumble and publicly make an issue of something in a way that causes damage to its standing in South Korea.  Strengthening U.S.-Korea-India cooperation is a good example – something benign that benefits all three countries, but could easily be portrayed by China as a strategic threat.

Second, embed South Korea in rules-based agreements and institutions in key areas. 

Rules-based order is a quiet battleground between the United States and China.  China benefits from ignoring international law, like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in favor of using its might to enforce legally unjustifiable claims like its Nine-Dash Line in the South China Sea and create facts on the ground that support those claims.  When it comes to the South China Sea, South Korea has always wavered between China and the United States on the notion of reinforcing rules; if Seoul does comment on the South China Sea, for example, it has a tendency to focus on norms of safe passage and freedom rather than the applicable rules in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  But in other developing areas, like cyber or environmental policy, there is a chance to commit South Korea to rules and norms that promote values the United States and South Korea claim to share, like a free, open, and multistakeholder model of governing the Internet.

Third, and finally, the United States and South Korea should place a greater emphasis on public diplomacy.

The United States has a demonstrated track record of successful public diplomacy with South Korea, from effective short-term engagement by U.S. ambassadors to South Korea – like Sung Kim, Mark Lippert, and KEI’s own Kathleen Stephens – to exchange programs that create strong people-to-people ties long term.  China has proven less deft in this arena.  With the right ambassador in Seoul and the right public initiatives, the United States can strengthen its ties with the Korean people, highlight its commitment to South Korea’s sovereignty and strength, and create an environment where any Chinese missteps and overreach could draw helpful contrasts with the United States for Koreans.

Ultimately, the United States needs to reassess how it conceives its overall strategy toward China – and what the point of strategic competition with China really is.  Is it competition for competition’s sake?  Or is it competition to ensure that the rules and outcomes that matter, in areas from human rights to trade relations, are shaped by the United States, its partners, and the values we share?  If it’s the latter, there is a great deal we can accomplish together with South Korea.  If it’s the former, we may be on our own.

Mintaro Oba is a former State Department official and expert commentator on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as a Contributing Author for The Peninsula.

Photo from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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One Response to “Can South Korea Find A Middle Way Between the U.S. and China?”


  1. […] has to recognize that standing still in the middle is not a viable policy. It has to proactively propose a way it can quietly, but substantively, contribute to U.S. efforts to balance Chinese power through its […]

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