Since the signing of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) Mutual Defense Treaty on October 1, 1953, the U.S.-ROK alliance has been the bedrock of maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula for over 60 years. The alliance has since gone “global,” focusing on issues such as non-proliferation, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping. The U.S.-ROK alliance is as robust and dynamic as ever, but in its transformation, it appears to have skipped a stage: a U.S.-ROK alliance focusing on regional challenges beyond the peninsula.
As tensions rise in the South China Sea over maritime claims, the need for the U.S. and South Korea to look regionally is more crucial than ever. Both countries have an enormous stake in international law, free flow of trade, freedom of navigation, and the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes. In light of these facts, why hasn’t the alliance taken concrete steps toward coordinating its approach toward regional issues as it has toward North Korea and other global challenges?
There are three reasons. First is the opportunity cost of diverting attention and resources from defending against North Korea. As North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have shown over the past six months, the North Korean threat is persistent and growing. North Korea also continues to develop and deploy cyber and other asymmetrical capabilities that pose significant threats to the U.S. and South Korea. The alliance must therefore dedicate a large share of its attention and resources toward a contingency on the Korean peninsula.
Second, fraught ties between Japan and South Korea have hindered the U.S.-ROK alliance from bringing Japan into the fold when it comes to addressing regional issues. But the United States cannot affect security in Asia, including the Korean peninsula, without the U.S.-Japan alliance and the U.S. deployed forces in Japan. Japan’s central role in this matter may make some in South Korea uncomfortable, but a regionally focused U.S.-ROK alliance requires coordination with Japan. On a positive note, the Japan-ROK relationship is on the mend after the resolution of the “comfort women” dispute. Additionally, the U.S.-Japan-ROK missile defense exercise this summer was an encouraging sign that the U.S.-ROK alliance is capable of having a regional agenda and incorporating other like-minded countries in the region.
The third reason is perhaps the most awkward, which is the divergence of U.S. and ROK views of China. Understandably, antagonizing China or pushing back against China’s destabilizing behavior touches a sensitive nerve among the South Korean public. From the South Korean perspective, realities of geography, bilateral trade, and China’s leverage in influencing North Korea are central to South Korea’s calculus.
But China’s leverage over North Korea should not cloud our judgment when it comes to assessing China’s intentions with regard to the Korean peninsula and the region at large. It should not be forgotten that 70 years ago, China sent “volunteer” forces across the Yalu in 1950 to support North Korea, preventing unification of the Korean Peninsula and an end to the Korean War. Fast forward to the 21st century and China continues to prop up its North Korean ally. President Park Geun-hye’s efforts to shore up Seoul-Beijing ties in her administration were rewarded with disappointing results from Beijing, which chose not to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Seoul after Pyongyang’s nuclear test in January. Similarly, in 2010, North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and artillery shelling of a South Korean island brought about no meaningful change in Chinese policy toward its North Korean ally. There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un is unpopular in Beijing, but none of this should reassure the U.S. and ROK that China will pursue a drastic change toward North Korea in favor of U.S. or ROK interests.
In fact, it’s unlikely that China plans to accommodate U.S.-ROK interests in the region at all. Xi Jinping shed light on these ambitions when he gave a speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in 2014, calling for the establishment of a “new regional security cooperation architecture” and declaring that “A military alliance which is targeted at a third party is not conducive to common regional security.” An achievement of this “Asia for Asians” vision would be devastating to the U.S.-ROK alliance and the broader security network that maintained peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the region for the past 70 years.
In this light, how consequential can the U.S.-ROK alliance really be if the two governments can’t be on the same page when it comes to China?
This is not to say that South Korea shouldn’t pursue a dynamic economic relationship with China. And this is not to say that South Korea’s alliance with the United States should preclude efforts by Seoul to strengthen political and diplomatic relations with Beijing. But, this does mean that the U.S.-ROK alliance requires a serious assessment of China’s strategic ambitions in the region. There are at least three steps that Seoul and Washington should take in order for the alliance to remain consequential going forward.
First, the U.S.-ROK alliance should conduct a joint net assessment of China. What are their capabilities and intentions? What do their military modernization programs mean for the region and the U.S.-ROK alliance?
Second, the alliance should develop a regional strategy. Both countries have an enormous stake in freedom of navigation, the peaceful resolution of disputes, democracy, and international norms.
And third, the U.S.-ROK alliance should develop infrastructure to respond to regional events, not just peninsular events. In light of China’s rejection of the Permanent Court on Arbitration’s ruling on July 12, the U.S. and South Korea should coordinate freedom of navigation (FON) operations in the South China Sea.
By any objective measure, the U.S.-ROK alliance is rightly judged as a shining success. We stand ready to “fight tonight” on the Peninsula and would surely prevail despite Pyongyang’s continuing investments in offensive capabilities. And our alliance can claim success on global issues such as cooperation in fighting terror, proliferation and mutual contributions to international peacekeeping. These virtues notwithstanding, we should also note the danger to the health of our alliance going forward should there be a divergence of views on the most consequential challenge facing the Asia-Pacific region for as far as the eye can see—namely, how to approach a more powerful and more assertive China that seeks to revise the political and security architecture in the region. Our countries should not sit idly by as the regional security environment deteriorates. Taking these steps will add the necessary dynamism and flexibility for the alliance to tackle the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.
Randall G. Schriver is President/CEO of Project 2049 Institute, Founding Partner at Armitage International, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Samuel J. Mun is a Research Assistant at the Project 2049 Institute. A version of this article was delivered in a speech by Mr. Schriver at the Institute for Corean American Studies Summer Special Symposium on June 24, 2016.