The careful balancing of relations with the United States and China has been the art of South Korea’s foreign policy over the past decades and administrations. Caught in a dilemma of choosing between its greatest ally, the United States, and its largest trading partner, China, Seoul has long shied away from siding with either power in their hegemonic competition. As a side effect, South Korea largely keeps mum on sensitive political and security-related issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
However, as the rivalry intensifies across all strategic areas, from trade and technology to security, the space for Seoul’s ambiguity has been rapidly diminishing. Particularly as tensions escalate in contested regional waters, where major flashpoints in the rivalry could potentially spiral into a military clash, South Korea will have to face difficult questions about its maritime role in the Indo-Pacific.
As the largest marginal sea of the West Pacific that extends 1,800 nautical miles from Sumatra to Taiwan, the South China Sea has become the main arena of strategic rivalry between the United States and China as they vie for regional hegemony. From Washington’s perspective, the South China Sea functions as a buffer zone that can project U.S. military power into the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, and contain China’s expansion of influence. For China, the body of water provides access to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the sea lanes that connect China to the Middle East and Africa. It is also a strategic space for China to counter the military and strategic influence of the United States, as Beijing aims to achieve maritime hegemony in East Asia.
To this end, China’s maritime strategy has been evolving since the years of Deng Xiaoping, with the conceptualization of the island chains. The first island chain was drawn during the Jiang Zemin years, spanning Indonesia and the Philippines to the Japanese islands as a line of coastal defense. Later, a second island chain emerged during the Hu Jintao administration, stretching from Japan’s Izu Islands through Papua New Guinea. Beijing also began developing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) systems to block out U.S. forces. Under Xi Jinping, China has continued to amass and grow its naval capabilities, as well as construct military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea.
China’s maritime and territorial ambitions have also exacerbated disputes with Southeast Asian countries over islands, reefs, and structures, which China has attempted to resolve on a purely bilateral basis, while ignoring international tribunal rulings.
As such, Beijing’s growingly aggressive behavior challenges the status quo and the freedom of navigation, which is essential to the United States’ military presence and forward deployment of its assets in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, Washington’s center of gravity has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, where it is beefing up its naval presence in the South China Sea. Key strategic concepts such as Mosaic Warfare, the Ghost Fleet Overlord program, and the Offset Strategy focus on deterring China from expanding its sphere of military influence.
Tensions in the South China Sea raise the possibility of military conflicts between the United States and China, as well as between China and regional countries. Any such conflict would compromise South Korea’s national interests. Potential military clashes could disrupt crucial sea lines and transportation links, which would critically hurt the export-dependent economy. Forty percent of South Korea’s trade and 90 percent of its crude oil imports pass through regional waterways, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.
Also, as the United States and China scramble to expand their influence and alliances, Washington may well request more military support from Seoul in the South China Sea, once again renewing the country’s strategic dilemma. While Australia and Japan have vociferously backed the United States’ moves to curb China’s naval expansion and revisionist advances in the region, the choice hasn’t been as straightforward for South Korea.
In 2015 and 2016, Seoul expressed the need for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes and showed support for freedom of navigation in the region. However, it has kept a non-military approach to regional flashpoints, so as to not irk China. Beyond their massive trade volume, Seoul cannot simply disregard Beijing due to sheer geography. It is crucial for the two Asian neighbors to cooperate closely on common challenges, from climate change to North Korea’s nuclear program.
However, as tensions escalate in regional waters, the country’s strategic ambiguity is getting harder to sustain, and it is only a matter of time until Seoul is forced to get its feet wet. Understandably, Seoul officials would much rather avoid making a strategic choice but the decision does not have to come down to the much-dreaded dichotomy.
Instead of picking a side, the country can break out of the age-old dilemma and pursue its own national interest at sea. By proactively taking up a greater role in regional maritime affairs, South Korea could become a moderating force that helps reinforce the freedom of navigation and rules-based order of the South China Sea, and establish trust and cooperation across Indo-Pacific waters.
Here, South Korea is well-positioned to take on a leading role to advance multilateral efforts to strengthen maritime security and stability. Despite the number of multilateral regimes governing international waters, the absence of strong central authority or leadership in the region has undermined universal laws and norms as well as arbitration of conflicts. For example, China refuses to accept the decision of an international tribunal that its land grabs in the South China Sea are in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While Washington stresses that the ruling should be respected in line with UNCLOS, there is some irony in the fact that the United States has not ratified the 1982 convention.
In order to lower tension and reinforce rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific’s maritime security environment, it is crucial to first overcome the distrust that permeates the region, and restore credibility to global maritime laws and norms. In this regard, South Korea can bolster key trust-building initiatives with not only the United States and China but also other countries in and outside the region. Strengthening maritime confidence building measures (MCBMs), ranging from simple ship visits and personnel exchanges to more delicate areas of security cooperation, can help reduce tension and stabilize relations in the region. For instance, installing a hotline between naval ships could be a concrete step toward ensuring safe navigation and preventing further disputes at sea. Fostering collaboration in defense technology and scaling up joint naval missions to mitigate transnational threats, humanitarian crises, and natural disasters could further promote greater camaraderie between competing states.
To this end, South Korea is in pressing need of strategy and greater military capacity. First, as it currently lacks a coherent plan or policy on regional maritime affairs, a pan-government control tower should be formed to address and coordinate all areas of national interest related to maritime security, from military to economy. Under an integrated national policy, Seoul should define its maritime role and interests, as well as set out mid- to long-term strategies to address the various sources of tension brewing in regional waters.
In particular, South Korea should also specify its scope of involvement in Washington’s minilateral groupings and activities in the South China Sea. In line with its support for a free and open Indo-Pacific, South Korea should consider participating in naval exercises with the United States beyond the waters of the East and West Seas to enhance their ability to operate jointly in support of their mutual interests. These exercises could involve a range of relevant operations including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, resupply, protection of sea lines of communication, minesweeping, amphibious operations, and anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Eventually, these steps could even pave the way toward joint freedom of navigation operations.
Moreover, in advancing its maritime interests, it is vital to enlarge South Korea’s naval force. Not only is greater seapower key to implementing vital operations at sea, such as those mentioned above, but it is necessary as an instrument of diplomacy. Despite Seoul’s previous attempts to forge stronger economic and diplomatic ties with Southeast Asian countries, a 2020 survey of countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) showed a critically low level of trust in South Korea when it came to “maintaining the rules-based order and upholding international law.” Diplomacy and soft power from the sidelines can only go so far without greater naval presence and capabilities that project South Korea’s capacity to support its regional partners in building a free and open Indo-Pacific.
With tact and imagination, South Korea can effectively turn the crisis of strategic choice into an opportune step toward its goal of becoming a Global Pivotal State. Leveraging its middle power position, the country should champion a rules-based maritime order characterized by cooperation rather than conflict and confrontation. Thus, the question of South Korea’s position in the South China Sea should no longer be avoided but proactively addressed with imagination and greater naval assertiveness.