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Korea Faces Decision on China Because of the Quad

By Terrence Matsuo

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has breathed new life into the concept of the Quad, which includes Australia, Japan, and India. There has been media speculation that the grouping will expand to other states, such as South Korea, because of its shared interests with Quad members. Experts say that while South Korea is unlikely to join the Quad, there are opportunities for it to partner with the bloc.

Just as the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy has roots in earlier concepts, the Quad is another initiative with older roots. During an online webinar hosted by the Sejong Institute and the Heritage Foundation, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan Marc Knapper said that the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia first came together to cooperate in humanitarian relief actions after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. “This grouping’s kind of waxed and waned over the years, but I think it’s now waxing, and it’s now growing out of a recognition that we do have shared challenges,” he said.

South Korean officials have indicated their concerns about the Quad, emphasizing that they have not been invited to participate in those discussions. Speaking to the Asia Society at the end of September, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said: “We don’t think anything that ultimately shuts out, and is exclusive of the interests of others is a good idea.” Director-General Ko Yun-ju of the North American Affairs bureau in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs echoed the foreign minister’s remarks, saying that Korea is focused on transparency, openness, and inclusiveness. “We are following those principles when we take consideration of the new initiative from the other countries of the regional cooperation,” he said, during the Sejong/Heritage event.

Officially, members of the Quad have identified a wide range of issues where they believe they can deepen cooperation. According to remarks before their meeting in Tokyo earlier in October, the foreign ministers identified topics like the coronavirus pandemic, infrastructure and economic development, and regional stability. Col. David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said that this wider interest differentiates the Quad from NATO, an organization it has been compared to. “To have the Quad built on a foundation that is more than just military cooperation is what will make the Quad strong and longer lasting, to the mutual benefit of all the participants,” he said.

Pointing to similarities between the American Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and the Korean New Southern Policy, Col. Maxwell said that maintaining freedom of access in the region, and cybersecurity are possible areas where Korea could partner with the Quad. “Since South Korea is the only nation to go from a major aid recipient to a major donor nation, I think that it would participate in other kinds of humanitarian and economic development in the region as part of a Quad Plus,” he added.

But not all experts are so optimistic about South Korea participating in activities led by the Quad. “A lot of these other issues – environmental, economic, dealing with the pandemic – need to be dealt with by far more than just the four countries of the Quad,” observed Dr. Gregg A. Brazinsky, the director of the Asia Studies Program at George Washington University.

The reason Korea has kept the Quad at arms length is because of its implicit focus on addressing China. Although it is unusual for diplomatic initiatives to specifically target a particular state, Dr. Brazinsky says, “I think you have to read the writing on the wall a little bit with something like this.” He pointed to recent clashes on the border between India and China, and longstanding Japanese concerns over Chinese incursions into its territorial waters. “When I look at the Quad, it seems that there are other areas where they can cooperate, but it also seems that the most prominent, common objective that the countries who are members have is containing China,” said Dr. Brazinsky.

Some Korean commentators warn Seoul against participating in the Quad because of this focus on China and a brewing cold war between Beijing and Washington. Professor Moon Chung-in, an advisor to the Blue House has said Korea’s participation in the Quad could force an “existential dilemma” that would put Korea “on the front line of a new Cold War era.”

“During the 45 years of the Cold War, Koreans suffered from the division of the peninsula and the ensuing war, an entrenched military standoff, and the limitations of a divided country,” writes Professor Moon in a column for the Hankyoreh. “Thus, they’re hardly about to welcome yet another cold war.”

But experts say Korea may not be able to maintain its midway point between the U.S. and China. “When you think about Korean history, it’s a disaster,” said Dr. Michael Green, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during an online webinar. He pointed out that when Korea tried to maintain strategic ambiguity between Qing China and Imperial Japan, Tokyo invaded. When U.S.-Korea relations were ambiguous after World War II, North Korea invaded. “History shows that when Korea tries to play this strategic ambiguity game between the big powers, it doesn’t end well,” Dr. Green said.

Calls for Korea to reconsider its strategic position between Beijing and Washington are not coming only from the U.S. side. A CSIS survey of Korean thought leaders found that 80% of respondents believed South Korea should prioritize security cooperation with the U.S. over relations with China. “Seoul now needs to recognize that continuing to keep an ambiguous stance between the US and China might make it the biggest victim of the intensifying rivalry between the two superpowers,” said a recent editorial in The Korean Herald, an English-language newspaper in Korea. “Its economic interests with China cannot be allowed to undermine its vital security alliance with the US.”

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark says that the Quad is just part of the larger challenge facing Korea. “If the United States is going to be increasingly focused on China in our geopolitics, then Korea’s going to need to figure out how it’s going to orient towards that,” he said. “How does the U.S.-Korea alliance handle the China question, be it in the Quad, outside the Quad, bilaterally, unilaterally, whatever it may be.”

Because of Korean ambivalence towards the Quad, experts say diplomats in both Washington and Seoul will need subtle diplomacy to manage stress in the bilateral relationship. “I think it’s important that there be some avenue for consulting with South Korea about what is going on in the Quad,” said Dr. Brazinsky. “But at the same time, I think it’s important that the United States doesn’t push South Korea too hard to be part of [the Quad].”

“There’s got to be open communication, built on a foundation of trust between the US and South Korea,” said Col. Maxwell. “Both sides have to be upfront about the challenges that they face, a clear articulation of their interests, and they’ve got to make decisions based on trust and transparency.”

Terrence Matsuo is a writer and analyst of American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a Contributing Author for The Peninsula. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from the U.S. Department of State’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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