South Korea and the Quad: Missing Out or Opting Out?
Image Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

South Korea and the Quad: Missing Out or Opting Out?


The recent revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”), heralded as a constellation of the Indo-Pacific’s premier democratic maritime powers, has generated extensive discussion regarding its intents and purposes, particularly in relation to the containment of China. However, as Professor Rosemary Foot recently pointed out, the Quad’s presently limited membership excludes other equally significant regional democracies including, among others, South Korea. While not generally considered a major power, South Korea’s growing middle power potential, improving democratic credentials, and increasingly robust strategic relationships with the Quad’s existing participants make its absence from the Dialogue somewhat unfortunate, especially considering that another ambitious regional middle power — Australia — already boasts membership.

For South Korea to join the Quad, either through invitation or application, would present it with an opportunity to further integrate into the regional security architecture already populated by the current membership. It could potentially expand South Korea’s strategic scope beyond inter-Korean affairs and consolidate its growing democratic credentials by tying them to greater middle power responsibility. On closer inspection, however, Seoul’s absence from the Quad is also entirely logical, for lingering tensions with its immediate neighbors continue to preempt greater multilateral security cooperation with key regional actors. Persistent disagreements over territory and historical remembrance continue to compound the bilateral relationship with Japan, while a fragile detente with China appears to have curtailed an enhancement of greater security integration between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. All considered, it would seem that a formal South Korean presence within the Quad, whether sought or offered, is out of reach for the time being.

At face value, South Korea fits the Quad’s ideal type almost perfectly. First, sufficient groundwork for greater maritime security cooperation with the other participants already exists. Aside from comprehensive interoperability with U.S. forces, Australia and South Korea have recently enhanced their own strategic relationship. Relations with India have also improved in parallel with New Delhi’s efforts to distance itself from North Korea, and a recent memorandum of understanding on military ship-building between the two has the potential to expand into tangible maritime cooperation. Seoul’s tense relationship with Tokyo has improved slightly with increased trilateral missile defense cooperation with the United States in light of mutual anxieties regarding North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

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Second, South Korean democracy has over the past year demonstrated its robust and resilient character with the removal and impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye by due process under enormous public pressure, peacefully resolving a political crisis that could have easily descended into violent chaos. These democratic credentials continue to improve under President Moon Jae-in’s leadership, as demonstrated by the recent handling of the domestic nuclear power debate. Considering the above, for South Korea to join the Quad now would not only expand its strategic horizons beyond the Korean Peninsula and reinforce its democratic progress, but signal to the region that the nexus between democracy and responsible security activism remains valuable at a time when the rules-based regional order is under unprecedented pressure.

However, even at this early stage, the Quad is problematic. The disparate motivations of its membership may yet prove its undoing, particularly considering that the varying nature of the economic relationships between the individual participants and Beijing could make it difficult to maintain a “sufficiently strong alignment of strategic perspectives and priorities,” as Andrew Shearer put it. In fact, participants have already demonstrated varying degrees of sensitivity to Chinese criticisms and anxieties in their initial statements on the sidelines of ASEAN. The more cautious tone adopted by India and Japan in this regard is perhaps reflective of their geographical proximity to China, resultant greater vulnerability to military pressures, and ongoing territorial disputes. By comparison, territorial integrity is a largely irrelevant consideration for Australia and the United States, though neither are without their own concerns for their economic relationships with Beijing.

South Korea would likely face similar economic and geographic realities were it to join the Quad, which may effectively preempt its participation altogether. Most notably, Seoul would have a hard time convincing Beijing that it was not buying into the alleged encirclement rationale behind the Quad. Moon is unlikely to risk the integrity of an already fragile bilateral economic relationship, only recently restored after Beijing effectively sanctioned Seoul over Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment in early 2017. Indeed, there remain critical ambiguities between South Korean and Chinese perceptions of their agreement when it comes to matters of security and strategic alignment. Claims that Beijing has “accepted” THAAD are misplaced, and South Korea will remain sensitive to offending Chinese anxieties in formulating its regional security policy. Moon has already dismissed prospects for a triple alliance with the United States and Japan and may have agreed to forego any further trilateral missile defense cooperation as part of the detente with China, though this remains unclear.

In addition, historical animosities with Japan may help explain South Korea’s absence from the Quad’s original and contemporary formulations, considering that the idea was originally proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his short-lived first term in office. Though Seoul and Tokyo have agreed to coordinate efforts to reign in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the Moon administration’s ongoing review of the 2015 “comfort women” accord threatens to plunge bilateral relations into a new winter. Given the difficulties in separating historical grievances from current bilateral diplomatic engagement, it would be no surprise if these tensions set improved security cooperation back for another indefinite period.

In conclusion, though the Quad is — at least for the time being — far from a formal security pact or “Asian NATO,” seeking or accepting membership could still jeopardize South Korea’s pursuit of balanced regional diplomacy. Tense relationships with Japan and China will continue to impede an expansion of multilateral security cooperation with regional like-minded powers, including Quad members. Nonetheless, in the interests of enhancing its constructive middle power profile, South Korea should look to seize upon as many opportunities to broaden its strategic consciousness beyond inter-Korean affairs as possible. Indeed, the “strategic, creative, and bold” diplomacy recently called for by Seoul’s new ambassador to Washington explicitly in relation to North Korea is exactly the sort of approach that South Korea needs to adopt in its future regional engagement.

Tom Corben is an International Relations and Asian Studies (Hons) graduate from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

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