South Korea’s Enduring Restraint Toward China

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South Korea’s Enduring Restraint Toward China

Despite much bluster on the campaign trail, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s promise to get “tougher on China” has been rhetorical at best.

South Korea’s Enduring Restraint Toward China

In this July 3, 2014 file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping greets children waving the national flags of South Korea and China during a welcome ceremony at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Credit: AP Photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Pool

When South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was elected in March of last year, many observers saw a China hawk in the making, anticipating that he would abandon the Moon Jae-in administration’s cautious China policy and side closely with Washington to stand against Beijing. Indeed, Yoon’s tough pre-election comments on China, his commitment to deepening security ties with the United States, the strong pro-U.S. sentiment embedded in South Korean right-wing ideology, and the populist temptation to engage in anti-China politics all seemed to make a hardline turn possible.

But nine months into his term, Yoon looks far from a China hawk.

As South Korea walked a fine line between the United States and China in the face of their growing hostility, there were several controversial issues where Seoul sought to tread carefully and maintained a gray stance in recent years. Even under the Yoon administration, South Korea’s position on these issues has not changed much.

One obvious case is the dispute with Beijing over regional missile defense. Seoul walked back Yoon’s election pledge to deploy additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile batteries on South Korean soil. Beijing perceived the initial THAAD deployment in 2017 as alliance collusion to weaken its missile capabilities and retaliated by boycotting South Korean goods. Hosting more THAAD batteries would push South Korea deeper into the China-U.S. crossfire, and this risk might have led Seoul to think twice.

Yoon eventually dropped the THAAD pledge, with the defense minister’s explanation that it was a decision “concerning the reality.” Seoul also stated that it has no intention to join a U.S.-led regional missile defense architecture – consistent with the previous administration’s stance.

Another case in point is Seoul’s distancing from the Taiwan issue. Back in August, Yoon refused to meet then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited Seoul after her controversial trip to Taiwan. The decision was based on “a comprehensive consideration of national interest,” according to the South Korean presidential office. Seoul has been more vocal about China’s assertiveness in the Taiwan Strait recently, but it has also repeatedly assured Beijing of South Korea’s support for “One China” and has refrained from taking any explicitly pro-Taiwan stance.

A third issue is whether South Korea will join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. aimed in large part at countering China. During his election campaign, Yoon vowed to pursue formal membership in the Quad, and his advisers also initially advocated South Korea’s Quad membership. But the administration now appears to be settling for informal and issue-by-issue cooperation with the Quad on selective areas like climate change and vaccines rather than full integration. This direction would allow Seoul to work with the Quad but stay out of the group’s potential militarization against China.

Last and not least, the Yoon administration has balked at the U.S. policy to isolate China from semiconductor supply chains. Since early 2022, the United States has sought to get major semiconductor hubs around the globe – particularly South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, which along with the U.S. are dubbed the “Chip 4” – on board with its initiative to form a chip supply chain that excludes China. But the initiative has moved slowly without much progress in agenda-setting due to strong resistance within the group against its anti-China direction, especially from Seoul.

Stressing the importance of both the U.S. and Chinese markets for the South Korean semiconductor industry, officials in Seoul have reiterated that their government’s involvement in Chip 4 will be calibrated and conditioned in ways that do not harm its partnership with China. The Yoon administration’s semiconductor policy head held multiple meetings with the Chinese ambassador, reassuring him that South Korea does not intend to endorse U.S. export controls against China. While Seoul is enhancing semiconductor cooperation with Washington, it has not turned its back on Beijing, signing a new bilateral agreement to boost supply chain cooperation and communications.

In the end, Yoon’s “tougher on China” image has been rhetorical at best. Behind the rhetoric, the Yoon administration has avoided taking substantive anti-China gestures, and there is no indication that Seoul ever intends to. Looking at the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the more likely scenario seems to be that South Korea continues charting a moderate course on China going forward under the Yoon administration.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s Careful Approach to China

When it comes to China, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy quite sensibly diverges from the U.S. approach, which centers on containment. Seoul does not adopt Washington’s framing of the Indo-Pacific as a battleground between democracy and autocracy, in which China is the main opponent and a near-existential challenge. Instead, Seoul frames the Indo-Pacific as an “inclusive” region where “nations that represent diverse political systems” can peacefully co-exist. Seoul explicitly states that it “does not seek to target or exclude any specific nation” and defines China as a “key regional partner.”

To be sure, Seoul does worry about China’s assertiveness, and South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy addresses this, such as by upholding the rules-based order, showing support for peace and stability in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and opposing unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion or force. But Seoul avoids directly mentioning China by name, and its general tone vis-à-vis China is notably softer than respective documents by Washington and other relatively hawkish governments like Tokyo.

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy also eschews the narrative of extreme competition with China and strongly emphasizes inclusive regional cooperation and engagement. Lamenting how “the rising geopolitical competition has stalled regional cooperation,” Seoul vows to promote an “inclusive economic and technological ecosystem” and prevent the “overwhelming securitization of economic issues.” These references appear to deliberately reject the idea of anti-China decoupling.

The Reasons for Seoul’s Reluctance

Despite skepticism and suspicion toward China, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy overall reflects a strong impulse to maintain positive relations with China based on cooperative engagement, rather than confront China. The apparent resistance toward antagonizing Beijing is fairly self-explanatory; an anti-China policy does more harm than good to South Korea’s comprehensive geostrategic economic and security interests.

In the security realm, antagonizing China could backfire and destabilize South Korea’s security environment. Dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat continues to be South Korea’s top foreign policy priority and requires region-wide cooperation involving Chinese support on sanctions and dialogue. Having hostile security relations with China could further complicate the North Korean nuclear issue and even prompt Beijing to pursue active military cooperation with Pyongyang. Under such circumstances, South Korea might soon find itself on the front lines of a new Cold War.

An anti-China shift in Seoul could also place South Korea in the middle of any conflict over Taiwan. If Seoul deepens its contribution to U.S. forward deployments and extended deterrence capabilities in the Western Pacific and the South Korea-U.S. alliance force posturing becomes more clearly directed at China, Beijing will likely determine that Seoul is committed to defending Taiwan. In this scenario, South Korean territory would face a much greater risk of Chinese missile attacks in a potential Taiwan conflict, which would drag Seoul into what might escalate into a catastrophic major power war.

Unlike some of its neighbors, South Korea does not have territorial disputes with China, and the absence of any direct source of military conflict has kept its security relations with China relatively peaceful. Arguably no South Korean administration would find incentives to break the status quo and lock itself into a permanent state of high tension with Beijing. South Korea has therefore limited its military cooperation with the United States mainly to efforts to deter North Korea. The question of South Korea’s role in a potential Taiwan conflict has also largely remained taboo in Seoul.

South Korea’s reservations about a “China containment” stance extend well beyond the security sphere to the economic and technological realms. Joining U.S. efforts to isolate China from global supply chains and decouple from China could lead to severe economic stagnation caused by unrecoverable large trade deficits.

South Korea is among the world’s most China-dependent economies. Over 40 percent of South Korea’s national income comes from exports, and exports to China account for the largest share by a big margin – a quarter of the total volume. Without its trade with China, South Korea would suffer a major deficit and economic slowdown. Compared to countries like the United States and Japan, which rely less on China for their trade and have strong domestic markets, South Korea has a lot more to lose from economic disputes with China.

The Chinese market’s importance to South Korea’s globally competitive semiconductor industry makes the trade partnership with China even more crucial. Semiconductor exports represent one-fifth of the total South Korean trade income, and 40 percent of them are sold to China. This is only the beginning of the story. South Korea depends heavily on imports to get the rare earth minerals used for its chip production, and an overwhelming 60 percent of those imported rare earth minerals come from China. Over the years, China’s geographic proximity, cheap labor, and resource abundance attracted South Korean tech giants like Samsung and SK Hynix to build factories and produce a large bulk of their memory chips in China.

China has become virtually irreplaceable in South Korea’s economic structure. And this structure cannot be overturned easily. As the South Korean conglomerate SK Hynix CEO said, giving up the Chinese market is simply “impossible” for South Korea. Despite the growing push for anti-China decoupling in Washington, South Korean political elites and business leaders are looking to protect existing bilateral supply chains with China and upgrade the South Korea-China free trade agreement. South Korea is not interested in decoupling and wants to maintain robust economic engagement with China.

South Korea’s Restrained China Policy Is Here to Stay

Ultimately, any South Korean administration, whether conservative or progressive, has to prioritize what is best for the well-being of the country and the people when formulating foreign policy. Yoon’s backtracking on his hawkish campaign promises offers the strongest evidence to date that South Korean leaders doubt that the benefit of pursuing China containment outweighs the cost of shattering the relationship with Beijing. And the consequence has been an enduring continuity of South Korean restraint facing China.

South Korea’s basic geostructural reality of residing next to China in the dangerous Northeast Asian flashpoint and having China as the most imperative economic partner has driven successive governments in Seoul, from the left wing to the right wing, to pursue a regional strategy centered on risk aversion and threat management. Under both the Moon and Yoon administrations, South Korea has sought to hedge the China-U.S. rivalry, do its best version of staying close to Washington without provoking Beijing, and diversify its strategic partnerships to reduce dependence on the two great powers and avoid entrapment in their deepening rivalry. Since the sources of South Korean restraint vis-à-vis China are intrinsically structural (e.g., centered on geography and economic structure), partisan politics and changes of administration are unlikely to trigger a dramatic policy shift in Seoul.

In their analyses of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy, some observers argue that Seoul may be poised to pursue a lockstep regional policy in line with the United States due to its value orientation as a liberal democracy. This perspective sees “like-mindedness” as a powerful bond that will eventually get democracies to turn against China.

It is true that South Korea’s value orientation leaves significant room for cooperation with the United States. As Seoul seeks to expand its influence on the global stage among democracies, values-based diplomacy will remain a key component of its foreign policy, with the South Korea-U.S. alliance at the core. Seoul will continue to seek close cooperation with Washington based on values and many shared mutual interests. Even then, there will likely be clear limits on South Korea’s alignment with the United States on China. Short of a direct and extreme Chinese threat to South Korea, it is difficult to imagine that any South Korean administration would be willing to take on the enormous risks involved in pursuing a containment policy.

South Korea’s strong resistance to a “China containment” policy is something U.S. policymakers should keep in mind going forward. Overlooking South Korea’s geostrategic situation and pressuring Seoul’s participation in anti-China containment initiatives can backfire and harm South Korea-U.S. relations.

When Washington urges Seoul to stop doing business with China on the one hand and discriminates against South Korean companies in the U.S. market to favor American industries on the other hand, Seoul cannot help but increasingly feel like a mere chess piece in a great power competition. No wonder the majority of South Koreans, despite their negative feelings about China, support a carefully balanced approach to the China-U.S. rivalry without overly tilting toward Washington.

If a key U.S. ally and a healthy democracy like South Korea, whose economy is based on high-tech production, can exist peacefully on China’s doorstep, maybe U.S. leaders should rethink whether framing Asia as a battlefield for great power struggles against China is really necessary in the first place.