Anti-China sentiment is rising in South Korea (ROK), according to recent public opinion polls, social media, and online petitions. Chinese influence on Korean media and the increasing public awareness of Chinese economic and military aggression in the region help explain this phenomenon. Nevertheless, ROK President Moon Jae-in continues praising China for its leadership on regional and global issues and fails to acknowledge both Beijing’s overt territorial aggressions throughout the Indo-Pacific region and its human-rights abuses.
Moon’s reluctance to hold the Chinese government accountable for its misdeeds underscores a challenge for the United States and other allied governments in bolstering regional cooperative efforts supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Fortunately, President Joe Biden potentially has an opportunity to help Seoul resolve this problem at his upcoming summit with Moon set for May 21 in Washington.
Two overarching factors likely underpin the Moon administration’s China policy. The first is a dependence on China for a mutual consensus between Beijing and Seoul that China can help facilitate inter-Korean engagement and reconciliation.
The United States has hesitated to openly embrace Seoul’s plans to open inter-Korean business and engagement projects. Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris noted concerns that such efforts could detrimentally impact sanctions enforcement, thereby ceding leverage to Pyongyang. This has led to some tension in U.S.-ROK relations. For example, ROK unification minister Lee In-young openly criticized the U.S.-South Korea joint working group for obstructing inter-Korean engagement efforts by only prioritizing sanctions on North Korea that he believes have failed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
support. Consequently, said Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, South Korea continues conducting senior-level outreach to Beijing to encourage China to “continue serving a constructive role in the stable management of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Seoul’s growing dependence on Beijing, however, is problematic. Dr. Jung Pak, the deputy assistant secretary of state on east Asia and a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, correctly assessed that China treats strong relations with South Korea “as a critical part of its effort to establish preeminence in Northeast Asia” and undermine U.S. military and diplomatic influence in the region.
This assessment reflects the second factor shaping Seoul’s China policy: Chinese coercion. In May 2020, the Trump White House published a report assessing the Chinese government’s “use of economic, political, and military power” to intervene in “sovereign nations’ internal affairs to engineer consent for its policies.” Seoul was a direct victim of such outright aggression in 2017 after the alliance decided to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to bolster alliance missile defense capabilities to defend South Korea from North Korean missile attacks.
Beijing responded to the deployment by orchestrating major boycotts and retaliatory economic measures against South Korean retailers, automakers, and tourism companies operating in China. The regime’s moves incurred approximately $7.5 billion in losses for South Korea that year. Seoul resolved the dispute by agreeing to three major concessions, now often referred to as the “three no’s”: no further deployments of THAAD missile defense batteries, no participation in a U.S.-led integrated missile defense architecture, and no trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.
Since then, South Korea has continued appeasing Beijing. For instance, in November 2017, South Korea rejected Japan’s participation in a trilateral naval exercise with the United States. Later, in 2018, South Korea opted out of joining the United States and Japan in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)” strategy, citing concerns that it would focus on containing China, and instead adopted its New Southern Policy (NSP). FOIP is a U.S.-led strategic policy initiative with Japan, Australia, and India that focuses on protecting Indo-Pacific’s collective security, economic prosperity, and the rules-based order. NSP is South Korea’s foreign policy initiative that aims to bolster Seoul’s engagement with Southeast Asia and India.
Seoul defends NSP as mutually supportive of FOIP. Yet its reluctance to engage directly within the FOIP underscores Seoul’s strategy of not provoking China. Also, unlike other U.S. allies, Seoul remains hesitant to completely divest its telecommunications infrastructure from China’s tech giant Huawei, even though there is abundant evidence of the company’s data privacy threats.
If Seoul continues to tailor its foreign policy to avoid inciting Beijing, then Washington will find it more difficult to encourage South Korea to be involved in collective regional security efforts such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad Plus. This is the now expanding consultative body comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India that seeks to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
By joining this collective effort, Seoul not only would reaffirm its commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance but also would directly embed itself into regional security and diplomatic initiatives with other governments sharing the common norms and values underpinning the regional rules-based order. President Moon himself expressed support for more “multilateral cooperation enhanced with inclusiveness” to counter unilateralism and protectionism. A South Korean presidential policy advisory group also noted that membership in the Quad Plus could provide a platform to better influence North Korea policy.
Despite these numerous benefits, Seoul is reluctant to join the Quad Plus, as China continues overtly signaling its aversion to South Korea’s membership. Fortunately, Biden can take the first step in steering Seoul’s China policy at the upcoming May summit. However, Washington should not coerce Seoul into joining the Quad Plus. Rather, Biden should help Moon see that deepening Seoul’s engagement in these multilateral efforts with other like-minded democracies will enable South Korea to bolster its overall influence in regional affairs. More importantly, shifting ROK’s regional foreign policy in this bold direction would send a signal to Beijing regarding Seoul’s new resilience to Chinese coercion.
To accomplish this, Biden should work to rebuild trust damaged during the 2017 THAAD dispute. Amid this crisis in Seoul, the U.S. government did little to nothing to support South Korea in mitigating losses or to punish Beijing for its economic warfare. Washington’s inaction has likely continued fueling doubts regarding America’s willingness to help Seoul in the future. Biden must rectify this earlier failure by providing Seoul with specific commitments in cases of Chinese retaliation. These could include proportionate countermeasures, such as sanctions or punitive fines, targeting Chinese companies and entities if Beijing employs similar tactics to those that it used in 2017.
Biden vowed last November to defend all U.S. allies against Chinese coercion. He should demonstrate his commitment later this month when he meets Moon. Only then will the United States have a better chance to encourage South Korea to join the Quad Plus. In this way, Seoul could help contribute to regional security, economic prosperity, and the protection of the international rules-based order.
Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on the Korean peninsula and East Asia at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.