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What the South China Sea Means for South Korean Grand Strategy

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Asia Defense

What the South China Sea Means for South Korean Grand Strategy

The issue is a critical litmus test for Seoul’s regional role.

The South China Sea is a litmus test for South Korean grand strategy, which would benefit greatly by reorienting away from an inward obsession with North Korea and instead turning outward, to attend to the destabilizing trends in its neighborhood. Korea’s history is one of victimization at the hands of great power competition; avoiding that fate should be its raison d’etre.

For those unaware, this article is part three in an ongoing debate with Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University (and a friend by proxy). The first part was an argument I advanced last month, stating that South Korea should not remain silent about aggression in the South China Sea. Kelly’s response, over at The Interpreter, was a smart explanation of the status quo in South Korea, concluding that it’s in South Korea’s—and the region’s—interest for it to stay mum on the South China Sea. I have minor quibbles with a few of Kelly’s supporting points, but the biggest source of debate between us may be an implied one, about the type of grand strategy that would best serve South Korea.

Kelly argues that South Korean silence amid Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea buys something quite valuable: Chinese abandonment of North Korea. Alas, I’m not so sure. I have no doubt that South Korea hopes—even believes—an ostrich approach to the South China Sea will curry favor with China on North Korea. But such a hope is logically and empirically unfounded.

First, there is scant evidence that Chinese foreign policy is based on anything other than cold calculations of its expanding interests. Kelly is correct to point out that Sino-North Korean relations are at their historical nadir, but that’s not the same as abandoning North Korea, a position that would require allowing North Korea to collapse. China has always been concerned that a North Korean collapse would unleash an obscene refugee flow into China, and South Korean complicity in the South China Sea doesn’t alleviate that concern.

Second, nuclear states don’t collapse (in the sense of dissolution and political absorption by another state). North Korea could prove that proposition wrong of course, but it would be the first to do so. For a number of internal and external reasons, we shouldn’t expect a nuclear North Korea to collapse, much as we might like it to. So even if China abandoned North Korea, the latter would, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “find a way” to survive. Already we see Kim Jong-un turning to Russia for aid and arms. And as The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield recently observed firsthand, North Korea’s cross-border trade with China seems to be thriving despite poor Sino-North Korean relations and U.S. sanctions; its metropolitan economy even shows signs of strength.

Third, whereas Kelly rightly notes that China sees North Korea as a strategic buffer, he perhaps goes a little too far in expecting that South Korean ingratiation with China will allow it to “safely give up” that buffer. Even if South Korea convinces China that it isn’t hostile to a Chinese agenda by staying out of the South China Sea dispute, the strategic problem of U.S. military forces on the Korean Peninsula remains. China’s need for a strategic buffer has principally to do with the U.S. military, not South Korean intentions.

Fourth, Kelly attributes poor Sino-North Korean relations to South Korean (and specifically President Park’s) efforts to “woo” China away from the North. That assumption gives far too much credit to South Korean diplomacy. South Korea has indeed shown some solidarity with China on select issues, but it also has some healthy tensions with China—notably on missile defense, China’s air defense identification zone (which includes Korean airspace), and on Chinese historical claims to northern Korean territory. More importantly, by every indication, the dismal state of Sino-North Korean relations is due to cross-border friction, a disrespectful Kim Jong-un, and the regime’s unwillingness to heed Chinese advice on refraining from provocations and returning to Six-Party Talks.

For these reasons, Kelly believes South Korean “free-riding” in the South China Sea is, while unfortunate, essential. As I’ve argued here though, there are multiple reasons to believe South Korean decision-making has a much smaller impact on Chinese decision-making than it (and even I, frankly) would like.

But these quibbles don’t necessarily reflect a deeper disagreement between Kelly and I; it’s all prelude to a more implicit debate about South Korean grand strategy.

Kelly seems to support the idea that North Korea should be the central focus of South Korean government efforts, even though the North seems remarkably resilient to outside pressures. While North Korea is an enormous problem that falls disproportionately on the shoulders of South Korea, it’s also a failed experiment of a country, and South Korea needs to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” As the Asian security order continues to evolve, a singular focus on North Korea at the expense of emerging power competitions in Asia risks South Korea once again losing agency because of an inward focus.

If North Korea is central to South Korean strategic thinking, then it makes eminent sense for South Korea to leverage its great power relationships to achieve influence over North Korea. But this is exactly backward from how South Korea as a middle power should be treating its great power relationships. Rather than bending Chinese and U.S. policy to vainly try and influence North Korea, it should be doing the opposite—South Korea should be leveraging its unique position vis-à-vis North Korea to influence its relationships with the region’s great powers.

The real strategy game is with the region’s larger powers, not with South Korea’s forlorn cousin to the north. But such an argument depends on whether South Korea’s strategic gaze aims primarily at North Korea or at avoiding a repeat of history as a “shrimp among whales.” And on that point Kelly and I might have opposing views.

For middle powers to punch above their weight requires not an inward, parochial focus but hyper-engagement with neighbors and external stakeholders. A South Korean grand strategy that places North Korea at its center is tantamount to an inwardly focused South Korea, and that benefits neither South Korea nor the region. Of course, I don’t intend to imply that South Korea should stop planning against North Korea or take North Korea policy less seriously; I only mean to say that North Korea should not be the sole driver of South Korea’s geopolitical agenda.

The region needs South Korea’s voice on the South China Sea precisely because of South Korea’s positioning relative to China, and because South Korea’s defense industry has wares to offer Southeast Asian militaries that can boost maritime security if coordinated with other outside powers. But South Korea needs to find common cause with other liberal powers in the South China Sea for its own sake.

The South China Sea is the kind of regional engagement opportunity that allows a middle power to navigate changing patterns of order and competition without becoming a mere victim of circumstance. South Korea may not be able to bend the region to its preferences, but by playing an active and cooperative role in the dominant issues of the day in its neighborhood, it will curry favor with others, contribute to regional order, and be highly attuned to shifting regional trends that affect its interests. A failure to engage means the future of the world’s most important region will be decided without it.