In November 2020, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) — an informal security pact between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India that Beijing claims is anti-China — conducted its first joint military exercise. The joint exercise stirred debate over the Quad’s possible evolution into a formal multilateral security alliance explicitly aimed at containing China, similar to how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) opposed the Soviet Union. Whether the Quad will become an “Asian NATO” is a mystery, but its potential to develop as an extensive anti-China coalition is not negligible. Quad members are growing tougher against China and have reiterated a need to formalize and expand the Quad to confront China more effectively.
Biden seeks to recalibrate much of his predecessor’s foreign policy agenda, but the Quad endures. Underlined in recent remarks from Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the Quad remains a foundation of American counterbalance against China and is poised to develop further, including through a reported leader’s summit, perhaps in the next month.
Shadows of Reluctance
When newly appointed South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong was recently asked about the Quad, he replied Seoul is willing to cooperate with forums and partnerships that “operate in a transparent, open, and inclusive manner.” Though Chung may sound optimistic about the Quad, the twist here is “open and inclusive.” Chung’s view does not depart much from that of his predecessor Kang Kyung-hwa who asserted South Korea would not be interested in efforts to shut out a selected target. Both statements subtly expressed skepticism toward the Quad’s anti-China rhetoric.
Washington has yet to push for Quad expansion officially, but the emerging “Quad-Plus” framework leaves considerable potential. There are indications that the United States envisions South Korea as part of an expanded Quad. Throughout 2020, the U.S. hosted a series of multilateral video conferences for Asia-Pacific COVID-19 cooperation. The pandemic conferences, which involved Quad members and several major non-Quad U.S. partners, notably South Korea, were advertised as a “Quad-Plus meeting” in Washington.
The Quad-Plus campaign saw plenty of support in Washington. And South Korea eventually appeared as part of the “Quad-Plus” in a congressional commission report discussing efforts to confront Chinese coercion. South Korean gestures toward the Quad-Plus campaign, however, were not especially positive. The campaign gained enough attention in Seoul to make it a discussion topic at an annual parliamentary inspection of government agencies. At the event, the foreign minister denied speculations around South Korea’s Quad engagement and insisted South Korean attendance at the Quad-Plus meeting was for nothing beyond pandemic cooperation.
In general, South Korean official statements on the Quad have been reluctant and skeptical. The South Korean national security adviser, for instance, warned that Quad participation would jeopardize South Korean interests and destabilize the Asia-Pacific; this view is the polar opposite of popular voices in Washington. While Washington seems convinced that Seoul’s participation in the Quad will be rewarding, South Korea appears to view potential Quad engagement as a zero-sum game.
South Korea’s China Dilemma
From South Korea’s perspective, the zero-sum concern about the Quad is plausible. The Quad could grow as a legitimate anti-China coalition, and that is enough for South Korea to think twice about participation. Vital South Korean economic and security interests are at stake when peace with China is disrupted.
China is crucial to South Korea’s economy. China is South Korea’s largest trade partner by far, the biggest consumer of Hallyu cultural products such as K-pop and K-drama, and a top tourism source. Consequently, South Korea is vulnerable to Chinese economic coercion. South Korea’s 2017 deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), a U.S. missile defense system that Beijing perceived as anti-Chinese military surveillance, was met with detrimental Chinese trade retaliation, boycotts against Hallyu, and a travel ban. South Korea is not the only victim of Chinese economic coercion but is surely among the worst impacted.
China also matters to South Korean security. Beijing and Seoul were former enemies in the Korean War and are only 592 miles (952 kilometers) apart. Already agonizing over North Korean nuclear aggression, South Korea finds it best to avoid another tense military relationship in its neighborhood. Not to mention that China is an important South Korean partner for dealing with North Korea; China has often played a key role in dragging a hostile and reluctant Pyongyang to nuclear talks. Obvious as it sounds, the South Korean security environment is better positioned when at peace with China.
The THAAD dispute awoke South Korea to a bitter dilemma of great power intervention between China and the United States. The crisis marked the last event in which Seoul made a “choice” between Washington and Beijing. South Korea thereafter stuck to “strategic nondecision” — avoiding a choice between Washington and Beijing and remaining a nonpartisan actor vis-à-vis the U.S.-China rivalry.
Embracing Strategic Nondecision
Given South Korea’s pursuit of strategic nondecision and a substantial degree of skepticism shown at the official level toward the Quad, it is hard to imagine South Korea committing to deeper Quad engagement. South Korea’s potential opt-out would be a bummer to Biden’s Asia policymakers who take tough stances on China and believe in multilateral balancing as a winning regional strategy against Beijing.
Battling the temptation to pressure Seoul for a commitment, Washington should ponder if doing so is the best for the alliance. The widening fissure in the U.S.-South Korea alliance throughout the Trump era serves as a valuable lesson to the Biden administration that pressuring Seoul is counterproductive.
From beginning to end, the Trump administration collided with the Moon Jae-in administration on how South Korea should be reacting to China. The Trump administration made numerous attempts to pressure Seoul into joining anti-China efforts, notably the anti-Huawei drive. Washington-Seoul exchanges on these demands displayed a tiresome cycle of pressure and resistance, and the alliance only appeared to be in increasing discordance.
South Koreans, especially liberals, generally believe the United States is not working with South Korean interests in mind. Much of the grievances can be attributed to the Trump administration’s America-first approach to the alliance and how it overlooked a key South Korean liberal interest: autonomy. South Korean liberal perception of the alliance deserves more attention because of the now-liberal dominant tilt of South Korean politics and its implication for the South Korean approach to the U.S.-China rivalry.
In South Korea, conservatives long dominated politics. But today the game is flipped. South Korea exhibits unprecedented liberal primacy in which liberals have won four consecutive elections by landslides and hold a historic parliamentary supermajority. The Moon administration and its liberal cohort are the most popular political coalition in South Korean history and set the tone for what can be seen as a transition from “conservative South Korea” to “liberal South Korea.” Some draw an analogy between South Korea’s liberal wave and the American “Reagan Revolution” that sparked a generation of conservative dominance in the United States.
South Korean foreign policy presents a sharp conservative-liberal divide. The pro-American conservatives historically prioritize maximal alliance cooperation and tend to align their foreign policy with that of Washington. On the other hand, South Korean liberals are longstanding advocates of strategic autonomy within the alliance. Moon Jae-in once commented, “South Korea should learn to say no to the Americans.” Moon put his words into action. The pursuit of South Korean autonomy is no small factor in the Moon administration’s strategic nondecision.
Many in Washington seem to believe South Korea is not siding with the U.S. in confronting China simply due to fear of Chinese retaliation and that protective measures (e.g., reimbursement of financial loss and commitment to punish China) can be solutions. Such an idea mistakenly assumes that South Korea would make pro-American choices by “default” and fails to acknowledge the South Korean liberal ideological attachment to strategic nondecision. For Moon and his liberal base, strategic nondecision is an invested effort to enhance South Korean self-reliance and be freer from great power intervention.
South Korea is now gradually becoming an autonomy-seeking liberal country. The once mainstream conservative voice that Seoul must prioritize maximal cooperation with Washington is becoming less popular. Regarding the U.S.-China rivalry, many South Koreans prefer strategic nondecision. More and more South Koreans believe their country should retrieve wartime operational control on the Korean Peninsula from Washington and become militarily sovereign.
Strategic nondecision, after all, is a common interest of both policymakers and the public in a liberal South Korea. The Trump administration’s repeated pressure to abandon strategic nondecision and endorse anti-China efforts left a liberal Seoul with an impression that Washington makes light of its interests and perceives the alliance as a “chess piece” for the U.S.-China rivalry. The crack in the alliance may well outlast the Biden era. Washington should acknowledge that Seoul’s strategic nondecision is not an anomaly and start looking for an actual common ground.
Not wanting to confront China does not mean South Korea is unwilling to work with the United States. The Moon administration wants to cooperate with Washington in the Indo-Pacific as long as interests align. Seoul’s New Southern Policy and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy share room for cooperation where South Korea can secure strategic nondecision and positively influence the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, including global health, climate change, and more. In the contentious military-security realm, South Korea would likely play it very safe, but room for cooperation is not totally absent. If Washington can seek cooperation without pushing its friend of more than seven decades into the U.S.-China crossfire, why not take that path?
James Park is a M.A. student in International Politics and China Studies at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies.