The South China Sea Needs South Korea

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The South China Sea Needs South Korea

Why Seoul can no longer stay on the sidelines of maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea Needs South Korea
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

U.S. officials have recently called on South Korea to play a role in the South China Sea, and for good reason.  As a middle power South Korea has an interest, opportunity, and obligation to help keep its neighborhood stable, and that means opposing coercive approaches to regional disputes wherever they arise, especially in the South China Sea.

South Korea has a long history of being victimized by great power competition.  It sees itself as a recurring pawn in great power politics, giving rise to a famous proverb in South Korea that roughly translates to “In a fight among whales, it’s the shrimp’s back that gets broken (teojinda).”  In Korean though, the term teojinda is an emotionally violent expression akin to bursting or breaking.  This emotion-laden notion of an existence as a shrimp among whales is part of the Korean worldview and shapes its strategic culture.

Small wonder, then, that South Korea seeks to avoid any major disturbances to its foreign relations, especially with Beijing and Washington.  When China proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Korea was famously caught in the middle, initially staying silent and joining only after a regional groundswell of support.  When Beijing counseled South Korea against hosting the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system that U.S. Forces Korea Commander GEN James Thurman once publicly called for, South Korea bristled, but has still not rendered any kind of decision about THAAD—even though THAAD is principally about North Korea, not China.  Any time its two largest foreign partners have competing preferences, South Korea gets stuck in the middle.  Korean history weighs heavily on its strategic culture, and that has meant that anything seen as a strategic foreign policy choice risks becoming a hotly debated, overwrought, and ultimately paralyzed decision.

South Korean Interests in the South China Sea

But the South Korea of today can’t afford to be a bystander in Asia’s geopolitics.  Danny Russel recently urged South Korean friends to live up to their middle power status by no longer staying silent on the South China Sea.  He was right to do so.  South Korea has no direct claims in the South China Sea, making it an honest broker.  Among Asia’s most meaningful powers, only South Korea is seen as having the potential to tilt toward Beijing’s preferences, making its voice on regional disputes even more important.   South Korean strategic choices, moreover, are a leading indicator of the future direction of the regional order.  When South Korea stays out of regional affairs, consensus stays fractured. South Korean opinion is key to judgments about the types of behavior and processes that are legitimate and those that are unacceptable.  Silence is consent.

And that’s why a South Korean role in the South China Sea isn’t just about South Korean status or responsibility.  It’s also a matter of South Korea having an enlightened sense of its own interests for the sake of avoiding a repeat of history.  South Korea has never benefited from a regional order in which might makes right; where coercion is an acceptable means of dispute resolution.  Yet unless nations unite in opposition to coercion in the South China Sea, and condemn it when it occurs, such an order will inevitably emerge.  A regional order where China is allowed to intimidate others will eventually come back to haunt South Korea, who has latent but real territorial issues of its own with China.

Even beyond China, South Korea has an enduring need for international support to condemn and isolate North Korea.  In the event of a conflict with or collapse of North Korea, South Korea will find itself in desperate need of regional support.  Yet Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and others may see less of a need to come to the aid of a South Korea that remains apart from the larger Asian security community and does nothing to support friends and partners facing Chinese encroachment.  South Korea understandably believes it will need Chinese support in the event of any contingency involving North Korea.  But turning a blind eye to Chinese assertiveness in hopes of winning China’s future hypothetical support is naive—China has always acted according to its interests, and its calculation of those interests won’t change simply because South Korea stayed quiet while China challenges its neighbors.

Notwithstanding the distinct challenges that North Korea poses, South Korea has much more in common with the rest of Asia than it might like to acknowledge.  Like the rest of the region, South Korea’s economy is highly dependent on trade and investment from China, yet it also depends on a reliable regional U.S. presence.  Like the rest of the region, its national economy will suffer if Southeast Asia’s strategic waterways shutdown because of conflict.  And like the rest of the region, it benefits from a stable regional order governed by consensus and norms, not force.

A Middle Power Opportunity

So what can South Korea do?  Its military spending is limited, and rightly concentrated on North Korea.  South Korea even has constitutional constraints on extra-Peninsula military activity (though its involvement in global operations from Vietnam to Iraq suggests that’s not a real delimiting factor).  And it doesn’t really operate a blue water navy; power projection as far as the South China Sea isn’t realistic.

Relax.  Nobody wants South Korea to start a conflict with China far away from its own territory over an issue in which it has no direct stake.  But there are three things South Korea could do to stay part of the regional community, promote stability, and live up to its nascent middle power status.

First, join or host bilateral and multilateral exercises that help improve the coastal defense capacity of ASEAN militaries.  Coastal forces are less antagonistic to others and less capable of offensive military missions than other types of forces, yet most ASEAN militaries lack even the ability to defend their exclusive sovereign boundaries.

Second, join other interested outside powers—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—to coordinate the sale, transfer, or lease of military capabilities that improve maritime situational awareness.  That includes surface patrol vessels, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, and radar systems.  South Korea and the others already treat Southeast Asia as a market for defense industrial exports; better that these efforts build toward a common purpose than inadvertently undermine or overlap with one another.

Third, add South Korea’s voice to multilateral statements of condemnation when Chinese (or any other) aggression occurs in the South China Sea, and quietly demarche aggressors bilaterally behind closed doors as events demand.  South Korea routinely participates in multilateral meetings within ASEAN’s sub-regional architecture, but its voice is noticeably absent whenever the United States, Australia, and others speak out about concerns relating to behavior in the South China Sea.  South Korea’s foreign ministry already publicly supports implementation of the ASEAN Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea.  When well-known violations of the CoC occur, South Korea should make sure it echoes the concerns of others.

The South China Sea sits at the center of new patterns of security behavior emerging in the Asia-Pacific, and the region risks moving in a direction adverse to South Korean interests if it stays on the sidelines.  Not only is there much South Korea can do to stand in favor of a stable, liberal order in Asia at very little cost or risk to itself; a long-term view of South Korea’s own interests demand it.