At a recent appearance at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, Kurt Campbell, coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the National Security Council, offered a stark assessment of the U.S. relationship with China in the early days of the Biden administration.
“We all acknowledge that the period that was broadly described as ‘engagement’ has come to an end,” he said. “The dominant paradigm is going to be competition.”
Campbell’s statement—coming only days after President Joe Biden hosted South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House—highlights the extent to which the U.S.-South Korea (ROK) relationship will be pulled in new directions due to the challenges posed by China’s burgeoning military and economic might, a development that was heavily implied when Biden and Moon met on May 21. The summit signaled that South Korea may be willing to work with the United States and other partners to compete with China in providing regional public goods. While domestic constraints make it unlikely that South Korea will pursue an overtly competitive policy toward China, Seoul began a new chapter in U.S.-ROK relations at the summit by embracing a broader role in regional affairs.
Seoul’s new tone on China
While the U.S.-ROK joint statement released after the summit did not explicitly mention China—in contrast to the U.S.-Japan joint statement released following Biden’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide in April, which explicitly criticized Beijing—the statement nevertheless was more sharply critical of the Chinese government’s behavior than previous such documents. In the statement, the United States and South Korea stated their opposition to “all activities that undermine, destabilize, or threaten the rules-based international order” and voiced their commitment to maintain peace and stability and defend international rules and norms in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. This was the first time a ROK-U.S. joint statement has included reference to Taiwan.
The message was not lost on Beijing. “There was no mention of China, but it’s not that (Beijing) is unaware it is targeting China,” said Xing Haiming, China’s ambassador to South Korea after the summit. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson predictably protested, noting that “the joint statement mentioned issues related to Taiwan. The Taiwan question is China’s internal affair” and calling on both the U.S. and South Korea to “refrain from playing with fire.” Ahead of the G-7 Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi cautioned South Korea not to be trapped in a “biased” way of thinking and stated that Seoul and Beijing must maintain a “political consensus” during a conversation with his South Korean counterpart.
Notwithstanding this new tone, it is unlikely that South Korea will embrace an overtly competitive approach to China in the near term. Following the Moon-Biden summit, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong sought to reassure Beijing that Seoul was not “interfering in China’s internal affairs.” South Korea remains heavily dependent on trade, investment, and tourism flows with China, leaving it vulnerable to another economic pressure campaign. There is also a salient intellectual current that calls for South Korea to assert its autonomy and defend its sovereignty from the United States.
Countering China with a positive agenda
Nevertheless, it is possible that the summit could foretell a greater willingness by South Korean officials to side with the United States and other democracies against China. Beijing’s multi-year economic pressure campaign against South Korea in opposition to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system forced both Korean elites and the Korean public to abandon their hopes for an ever-closer relationship with China. Opinion surveys suggest that the South Korean public has soured on China: Beijing’s favorability rating within South Korea stood at a historic low of 24 percent in 2020. In addition, a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in March showed that the majority of South Koreans surveyed view China as an economic and military threat, although a lower priority threat than falling birth rates, climate change, and North Korea.
These concerns have clearly given the Moon administration new space to pursue a policy of countering China’s influence in the region. In his summit with Biden, Moon effectively signed up as a partner for the new U.S. president’s emerging foreign policy doctrine. On the campaign trail, in his public remarks as president, and in joint statements with Moon, Suga, and other leaders, Biden has emphasized that the organizing principle of his foreign policy is an effort to muster the world’s democracies to overcome global challenges, in the process pushing back against attempts by China, Russia, and other authoritarian countries to expand their influence in other countries. As a vibrant, prosperous democracy with a strong industrial base, South Korea has a critical role to play in realizing this vision in Asia.
Although the basic tenor of South Korea’s China policy may be modulating, Washington should not expect drastic change in the near term. If Washington continues to push Seoul to take a sharper approach on China, the U.S.-ROK alliance may become more strained. Instead, Washington must strengthen its alliances and urge its democratic partners, including Seoul, to become regional and global leaders. With the partial exception of the supply chain resilience initiative, pursuing these objectives is not explicitly about China. Rather, they amount to a bet that democracies can do more than China to support sustainable inclusive growth that respects sovereignty and human rights. By providing a positive economic and values-based agenda, Washington can advance its own vision for the region without forcing allies to pick sides.
The Moon-Biden summit was a positive step in this direction. The joint statement announced the beginning of a “new chapter” in the bilateral relationship, in which the allies would look beyond the Korean Peninsula—and their security relationship—to find new opportunities for collaboration. The United States and South Korea agreed to find new ways to harmonize their signature regional initiatives—the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision and the New Southern Policy, respectively—in pursuit of “regional coordination on law enforcement, cybersecurity, public health, and promoting a green recovery.” South Korea overcame some of its concerns about the Quad—an informal strategic dialogue that includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—and opened the door to cooperation in some form. More significantly, the two allies outlined an extensive package of joint projects on combating climate change and advancing decarbonization; accelerating the production and global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and strengthening global public health institutions; and the development of “critical and emerging technologies.” The latter includes a pledge not only to collaborate in the development of next-generation network technologies, clean energy and battery storage, and artificial intelligence but also to strengthen supply chain resilience for the production of semiconductors, strategic minerals, and pharmaceuticals.
With South Korea’s presidential election approaching in less than a year, it will be left to Moon’s successor to follow through on the vision outlined at his summit with Biden. However, regardless of whoever wins the next presidential election, South Korea will continue to balance its relationships with Washington and Beijing. The United States should pursue partnership mindful of Seoul’s limits. Although South Korean conservatives are traditionally open to regional security cooperation and becoming a well-established middle power, virtually no prominent conservative foreign policy experts in South Korea are calling for Seoul to openly side with the United States in an anti-China coalition. After all, it was former president Park Geun-hye’s conservative administration that focused on building stronger relations with China, a thaw that Moon continued to pursue even after the THAAD dispute.
The Moon-Biden summit is a significant landmark for the U.S.-ROK alliance and South Korean domestic politics. South Korean progressives, who have historically wanted the alliance to focus on North Korea, are becoming more open to the idea of expanding the U.S.-ROK alliance beyond the peninsula. This is a positive development in South Korea’s increasingly partisan political atmosphere, and a benefit to the United States, which has always viewed the alliance as capable of both addressing North Korea and playing a role in regional affairs. There is truly no limit on what the two allies can accomplish together in the region if there is a bipartisan consensus in South Korea that Seoul can and should play a greater role in confronting the region’s most urgent challenges in coordination with the United States and other democracies.
Tobias Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Haneul Lee is a research assistant for Asia Policy with the Center’s National Security and International Policy Team.
The authors would like to thank the Korea Foundation, whose support in part made this work possible. The Center for American Progress is an independent and nonpartisan organization and retained full editorial discretion over the content of this publication.