The geopolitical chessboard in East Asia has become more delicate with results of the South Korean presidential election. Theoretically, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration, which marks the return of a conservative to the Blue House, would base its foreign policy on a firmer South Korea-U.S. alliance and thus could create some diplomatic pressure or at least some distress for China.
For example, Yoon has repeatedly expressed his determination to expand deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. In the possible scenario of continued technical upgrades and even expansion of the THAAD system, China may have to consider very carefully the timing and feasibility of taking countermeasures against South Korea again. In addition, the impacts and possible backlash would also need to be carefully evaluated. After all, the deployment and upgrading of the THAAD system has been going on ever since the Park Geun-hye administration. Thus, even if the Yoon administration takes more aggressive or even radical policy measures on this issue, which is very sensitive for China, it can essentially be seen as a continuation or maybe reinforcement of the relevant policy positions of the two previous South Korean administrations.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has launched a series of initiatives related to the strategic competition with China, especially in terms of technology decoupling. U.S. officials have asked South Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries to play more important roles in cooperating with the U.S. in building a resilient semiconductor supply chain. As a result, Samsung and other South Korean companies have increased their investments in the United States to expand chip production lines in the U.S. homeland. Thus, theoretically, for the South Korean semiconductor industry, the U.S. market may at least partially overtake (if not replace) the share of the Chinese market. Of course, this would not be an effortless or easy change for either South Korea or China. However, under extensive and sustained political and diplomatic pressure from the Biden administration, such a change could be considered as necessary to building a closer South Korea-U.S. alliance, both symbolically (by signaling closer South Korea-U.S. cooperation) and substantively (by diversifying the overseas markets for South Korean semiconductors).
On the one hand, by cooperating with the Biden administration on semiconductor supply chains, South Korean companies may see more chances to engage with U.S. markets and partners that sit on the top of the supply chain. South Korea could see increased access to relevant patents and technologies, which are allowed to be shared under the South Korea-U.S. “semiconductor partnership” framework and a series of subsequent agreements signed by the end of 2021. On the other hand, South Korea’s continued push to diversify its overseas markets, for example in the semiconductor supply chain, could also create some “tech diplomacy” pressure on China, thereby increasing South Korea’s leverage to negotiate.
Thus, the examples of THAAD and semiconductors alone show that the foreseeable changes in the political landscape of South Korea are likely to push up the complexity of the geopolitical chessboard in East Asia once again. But looking more broadly, there’s a key question that is difficult to get around: Why do these divergences in East Asia, for example surrounding China, persist?
Unfortunately, frictions in East Asia, brought by two sets of trilateral power interactions, namely China-Japan-South Korea and U.S.-Japan-South Korea, have been amplified by the cross-Pacific strategic competition between China and the United States. However, it should be noted that, as an extraterritorial superpower, U.S. policymakers naturally do not have to put themselves in the position of China, Japan, and South Korea to think about the real balance of interests and political rapprochement in East Asia. Maintaining U.S. geopolitical interests in East Asia has always been the primary consideration of U.S. policymakers. In this regard, what can promote the pattern for lasting reconciliation and peace and stability in East Asia is a kind of “empathy diplomacy” among the parties in the region.
“Empathy diplomacy,” as I suggest in this article, may refer to diplomatic interactions between neighboring countries in which the root causes and original intentions of each other’s policy positions (even including some unavoidable dilemmas) are substantively incorporated. This may help to avoid, at least to a certain extent, the confrontational situation of overemphasizing the serious “consequences” of each other’s policy actions. Such a concept is not based on pure idealist thinking but on rational realism, in contrast with unilateralism or minilateralism primarily driven by ideology.
The two examples mentioned above can be used as examples. From the standpoint of South Korea, the root of the ROK-U.S. military alliance, namely defense against the threat posed by North Korea, has mainly remained unshaken. The change in U.S. policy toward China may also provide certain new opportunities and connotations for the expansion of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. In the meantime, South Koreans believe that the threat from the North is both persistent and substantial. Under these circumstances, the U.S. factor in South Korea’s national security can hardly be ruled out. The very nature of an alliance indicates that South Korea must do its part while enjoying the benefits of the common defense provided by the alliance – not to mention that the ROK-U.S. alliance is a typical asymmetric bilateral alliance that projects much more pressure on South Korea on all fronts.
Therefore, the THAAD system’s upgrade and probable expansion can be seen as an established step and strategic arrangement within the South Korea-U.S. alliance, regardless of which party, progressive or conservative, runs the South Korean government. But for the sake of the strategic competition with China, the United States utilizes its alliance with South Korea to promote collective security while continuing to add more ingredients. China has reasons to be concerned. The range of the THAAD radar system may go far beyond northern China, where China’s capital, Beijing, is located. How can Beijing remain reassured and indifferent to such a critical issue?
Suppose China were to be “empathetic” to South Korea’s security concerns – including its reasons for deploying THAAD. In that case, China can take substantive steps to actively promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, such as (again) pushing for the restart of multilateral mechanisms. Suppose South Korea was also “empathetic” to China’s security interests. Then, it is vital for Seoul to flexibly hedge against the ROK-U.S. alliance’s military deployment strategy through a highly tactful diplomatic approach, such as giving more prominence to constructing its own defense base and strength, rather than following Washington’s position and pace without conditions.
The above logic can also apply to the semiconductor supply chain issue. In foreign trade, excessive dependence on one country’s market may lead to increased risks, as factors including changes in political, economic, and diplomatic relations can cause friction and disputes. Viewed in that light, the long-standing efforts of the South Korean government to promote its overseas markets in the direction of diversification is something that China can and should understand (or empathize with) to some extent. After all, any country, including China, would like to explore more overseas markets to mitigate the risks associated with some high dependence on a single country, especially in the current moment of global supply chain disruptions. Thus, China may not need to show too many concerns about South Korea’s exploring new overseas markets (e.g., the U.S.) or even partially shifting its semiconductor product chain and supply chain away from China.
In contrast, a more “empathetic” scenario would be that China and South Korea jointly develop international markets (e.g., Southeast Asia, Africa, South America, etc.) using their respective strengths. A good example would be that the South Korean government has been studying the possibility of connecting with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and constructing the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area in its New Southern Policy.
Of course, the connotation of “empathy diplomacy” in East Asia should be much more than the brief outline above. The ideas discussed here are only proposing a preliminary concept, and the relevant details still need to be carefully examined and added. Considering that neighbors in East Asia, especially China and South Korea, have similar cultural traditions, these two countries may find more opportunities to interact more empathetically in handling bilateral relations, especially to exclude excessive interference from unnecessary extraterritorial factors and to understand or “empathize” with each other’s deepest security concerns and national interests.
Such a situation may be challenging to achieve in the short term. But there is an old Chinese saying that if you do not take many small steps, you will never be able to travel a thousand miles. The same is valid for achieving long-term reconciliation, peace, and stability in East Asia.