South Korea qualifies as a middle power by most definitions of the contested term. As the strategic competition between the United States and China intensifies, South Korea, like other middle power countries, is likely to face pressure to align with one of the other great power. The country’s choices in areas such as supply chain resilience and protection of liberal democratic values could be particularly consequential.
South Korea is a middle power in the sense that it possesses mid-range economic, military, and diplomatic capabilities. South Korea’s economy ranked 10 in the world in 2020, surpassing that of Russia’s. The country’s military spending was also 10 in the world in 2020, above those of Italy’s and Australia’s. In terms of international development aid, South Korea ranked 16 among the 29 major donors of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2020.
South Korea’s behavior in the geopolitical environment also supports the view that it is a middle power. The country has reacted to change in the geopolitical environment by building on multilateral frameworks, strengthening hedging strategies, and explicitly aligning with one or another of the great powers. It has also contributed to creating global public goods, mainly through the provision of international development aid.
Furthermore, the concept of middle power has become a part of South Korea’s identity, even if the country’s successive administrations have used the term slightly differently. For example, the administration of Roh Moo-hyun interpreted the term as a “hub” for regional economic and security cooperation. His successor Lee Myung-bak defined the word as a mid-ranking power with agenda-setting capabilities, whereas Park Geun-hye used the term to mean a “balancer” between the United States and China. Moon Jae-in, on the other hand, understands it as a “bridge nation” between advanced and developing countries.
The U.S.-China competition puts South Korea in a particularly awkward position. This is because, on the one hand, China is not only South Korea’s major trading partner, but also a neighbor with whom it shares a long history. On the other hand, the United States is South Korea’s crucial security ally and a fellow liberal democracy. As the competition heats up, South Korea is likely to face greater pressure to choose between the United States and China on many issues. There are some areas in which South Korea is likely to have a bigger impact than others.
The first concerns supply chain resilience for high-end electronic products. South Korea has considerable clout in that field, holding about 19 percent of the world’s market share in semiconductors and 31 percent of the market share on batteries for electronic vehicles. The United States is trying to counter China, a manufacturing hub for a number of strategic materials, by partnering with like-minded countries to prevent shortages. Seoul has leaned somewhat toward the United States in this regard, with the announcement of a $17 billion investment in U.S. semiconductor manufacturing made during President Moon’s visit to the United States in May.
Another example is the protection of liberal democratic values. South Korea has thus far been hesitant to call out China on issues such as human rights violations in Xinjiang and a crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong. This contrasts with Australia, another middle power that has aligned squarely with the United States on the matter. South Korea’s choice could help set the tone for the region, which includes many partial or flawed democracies. After all, if one of the strongest liberal democracies in the region cannot stand up to China and uphold democratic principles, how could others?
Dr. Naoko Aoki is an adjunct professor at American University and a Research Associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. She specializes in East Asian political and security affairs.