The May 21 summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden represents a significant step forward, not just in strengthening the bilateral alliance, but in pulling South Korea further in alignment with the United States’ broader strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. Although Seoul is often caught in the middle when it comes to Beijing and Washington’s power plays in the region, the Biden administration has been increasingly successful at bringing South Korea closer to America’s side.
This was reflected in the careful wording of the summit’s joint statement, a large portion of which directly addressed issues concerning the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. Early on, the statement explicitly mentions both countries’ common interests in the region: “The significance of the U.S.-ROK relationship extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula: it is grounded in our shared values and anchors our respective approaches to the Indo-Pacific region.”
Particularly, the two leaders agreed “to align the ROK’s New Southern Policy and the United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific […] to create a safe, prosperous, and dynamic region.” The mention of South Korea’s New Southern Policy – its Southeast Asia strategy under Moon – in the same sentence as the Indo-Pacific strategy, led by Japan and the U.S., is significant. Although no explicit mention was made of China, the statement is full of references that clearly indicate the positions South Korea and the U.S. are adopting vis-à-vis Beijing in the region.
One such issue is the Mekong River, where China’s dam-building activity has caused great concern to local communities over the past years. To this point, South Korea and the United States agreed to “consider opportunities for joint efforts to promote sustainable development, energy security, and responsible water management in the Mekong sub-region.” Using terms like “sustainable development” is similar to Japan’s strategy of countering China’s influence in the region by promoting its own forms of “quality aid” (implicitly compared to China’s aid in the region) that promotes “sustainable growth” (instead of what the U.S. and Japan see as China’s ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy).
Besides the Mekong, Moon and Biden also affirmed their commitment to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea. “We pledge to maintain peace and stability, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond,” the statement read. Unlike Japan, which has been actively collaborating with states in the region to counter what it sees as China’s expansionist maritime activities, South Korea has usually refrained from getting too involved in the issue. Friday’s statements, however, may mark a shift in Seoul’s stance.
Although the mention of the South China Sea is enough to warrant Beijing’s attention, the joint statement went one (big) step further by bringing up the most sensitive issue to China: Taiwan. “President Biden and President Moon emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” according to the statement. Although these are just words on paper, the symbolism is significant.
Often referred to as a “shrimp among whales,” South Korea has traditionally tried to walk a fine line to not overly upset either its top defense ally, the U.S., or its top economic trading partner, China. The last time Seoul appeared to overly gravitate to the U.S.’ side on matters concerning security, China’s backlash was swift, powerful, and long-lasting.
In 2016, South Korea agreed to install the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its territory, despite China’s warnings that deploying the system could “destroy” bilateral relations “in an instant.” China believed the system could be used to monitor its own missile deployments, thus posing a threat to its national security. When Seoul ignored its warnings and moved ahead with THAAD, Beijing retaliated by halting group tours to South Korea; refusing to issue licenses for Korean videogames in China; stopping K-pop concerts; shutting South Korean giant Lotte’s supermarkets throughout the country, and more. In 2017 alone, South Korea’s losses as a result of the THAAD retaliation were estimated to be $7.5 billion – a 0.5 percent hit to gross domestic product.
This kind of “bullying” behavior has not gone down well among local South Koreans, with anti-China sentiment sharply rising in South Korea over the past years. China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak further exacerbated feelings of distrust among South Koreans while Chinese claims calling kimchi – Korea’s staple side-dish – Chinese only added fuel to the fire. These feelings were on full display in April when over half a million South Korean citizens signed an online petition on the presidential Blue House website opposing the construction of a Chinatown in Gangwon Province.
For Washington, this is good news as China’s actions serve as a driver for U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region to come closer together, resulting in a de-facto bloc that could serve as a counterweight to China’s influence in the region. With regards to ties with South Korea, while China is falling behind, the U.S. is trying to strengthen the alliance. For instance, Biden made sure to quickly finalize a defense cost-sharing agreement with Seoul soon after taking office – something the Trump administration failed to do since the previous agreement expired in late 2019.
Also, unlike the Trump administration, Biden and his team have been emphasizing the importance they place on alliances since well before Biden won the presidential election. This, paired with regular communication based on respect and cooperation, has further pushed Seoul into Washington’s corner. This could eventually result in South Korea actively increasing its cooperation with the Quad in the region and, maybe, formally joining the group – something the United States has been hoping for.
Even though South Korea has long tried not to antagonize China out of fear of another THAAD-like retaliation scenario, experts argue that this strategy is not feasible in the long term as it weakens the South Korea-U.S. alliance while getting nowhere with China. Trump may have been too anti-China for Seoul’s taste, but Biden’s more strategic approach is proving to be much more palatable for Moon.
One notable win Biden handed Moon at the summit was the lifting of the missile development guidelines that have been restricting South Korea’s development and use of missiles since 1979. Without the restrictions, Seoul is expected to further strengthen its military defense capabilities by producing missiles that can fly well beyond the Korean Peninsula. Despite the move being a clear part of Washington’s China containment policy, Moon hailed the decision as a “symbolic and substantive” demonstration of the robustness of the alliance.
The outcome of the summit sends the message that South Korea is no longer as apprehensive of taking bold steps at increasing its regional political clout and strengthening its position as a key U.S. diplomatic partner in the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, South Korean officials announced on Sunday that they were actively working with both the United States and Japan to rearrange trilateral defense talks after the meeting scheduled for next month was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. The resumption of trilateral defense talks would mark yet another positive step for the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
The South Korea-U.S. alliance has long been called the linchpin of peace and stability in the region. Progress made at the summit affirms that both parties are finally taking significant steps toward living up to the true potential of the alliance.