Go To Contents
Web Forums & Briefs
  • left_bnr_ap.gif
Title Should the ROK Maintain Balanced Diplomacy in U.S.-China Hegemonic Competition? Date 2020.11.03

Tae-Hwan Kwak

Attach Dr. Kwak's article for IFES Forum (Oct. 2020).docx
The competition for supremacy between the United States and China is getting worse day by day. Recently, the U.S. aircraft carriers Ronald Reagan and Nimitz cruised side by side in the South China Sea waters. The Chinese fleet also sailed in the same area. We are concerned that if even a small skirmish occurs by accident, the military confrontation between the two powers will become inevitable. The crisis may expand into local war. As the chances of armed conflict between the United States and China are ever increasing in the South China Sea, we are very concerned that the Republic of Korea (ROK) could be involved in an unwanted local war between the United States and China.
In the U.S.-China hegemonic competition era, the U.S. plan for an anti-China NATO-type security system in the Indo-Pacific region is gradually becoming explicit. As part of its strategy to contain China, the United States is starting to unveil its intention to launch an Indo-Pacific version of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), by uniting countries in the Indo-Pacific.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper first mentioned the "networked-anti-China coalition'' on August 26, 2020, explicitly expressing the U.S.'s intention to form a ``networked alliance against China. On August 31, U.S. Secretary of State Stephen Biegun revealed the details of the U.S. plan. In the Indo-Pacific, there is no partnership at the same level as NATO; he said, "We can start small with four Quad countries, and expand member states."
In summary, the Quad, including the U.S., India, Japan, Australia, is a security alliance in the Indo-Pacific, will be expanded to form a new NATO-like partnership against China. The U.S. wants South Korea, Vietnam, and New Zealand to join a new security network. Vietnam declared balanced diplomacy toward the U.S. and China. Will the Moon Jae-in government participate in the new anti-China alliance system? Alternatively, Will the ROK maintain balanced diplomacy without joining it? The ROK faced this dilemma.
This author would like to make the following five arguments about the ROK’s participation in an anti-China NATO-like security network led by the United States in the Indo-Pacific.
First, the Korean Peninsula geopolitically is located at the intersection of maritime and continental powers. Therefore, the ROK must seek the best possible way for its national interests, pragmatically transcending ideology, and alliance. Put merely, Seoul's participation in an anti-China alliance system led by the United States may not lie in the long-term national interest of South Korea. In the US-China hegemonic competition era, as a sovereign state, the ROK must maintain the status quo policy to promote pragmatism based on national interests principles.
Second, the ROK government, to break away from the role of mediators or balancers in the era of US-China hegemonic competition, needs to maintain both pro-American and pro-Chinese relations continuously by promoting "balanced diplomacy." Besides, the ROK continues to strengthen the ROK-US alliance by defending and advocating the national interests, simultaneously maintaining a strategic partnership and cooperation with Beijing.
Third, in the era of international cooperation in the 21st century, the ROK's economic security is equally crucial for the Korean people's welfare and prosperity with military safety. Seoul and Pyongyang have not overcome the division of the Korean Peninsula for 75 years. The ROK, which has lived surrounded by the four major powers of the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan, geopolitically, will be put in a very insecure position if it stands in line with one of them against the others. Therefore, it is the best and wisest choice for Seoul to maintain balanced diplomacy to protect and enhance its national interests.
Although economic cooperation with China is essential to ROK's economic prosperity and survival, the ROK should correct the excessive export dependence (28%) on China and switch to a diversified trade policy.
Fourth, Seoul and Beijing are strategic partners with economic interdependence. The role of China in resolving Korean Peninsula issues is as important as that of the United States. Thus, China is a crucial player in establishing a denuclearized peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Suppose the Moon Jae-in government is in line with the United States in the U.S.-China hegemonic competition era. In that case, Beijing is likely to maintain a hostile relationship with Seoul, endangering its security interests.
As a middle power, the ROK, through the four-party talks among the U.S., China, and two Koreas, needs to play a more active and leading role in seeking practical solutions to the Korean Peninsula issues. These include the declaration of an end to the Korean War, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a peace regime with a Korean peninsula peace treaty (agreement) issue, normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea, lifting of international sanctions against North Korea, inter-Korean economic cooperation, and Korean unification issues.
Fifth, the ROK needs to make an in-depth and objective analysis of the two great powers' policies to make the best and wisest choice for the Korean people's survival and welfare, thereby maintaining the balance and harmony between realism and liberalism in international politics.
In the final analysis, Seoul's future policy should maintain balanced diplomacy in the U.S.-China hegemonic competition era. This policy direction is not a matter of choice that some have demanded the ROK to choose either the U.S. or China. Seoul should not select either one, but it should maintain balanced diplomacy to promote its national interest, which will be the best choice. Considering the Korean Peninsula's geopolitically and geo-economically unique circumstances, the U.S. should not force the ROK to choose its side. This author emphasizes that it is the ROK's national interest to maintain the ROK-U.S. alliance while keeping balanced diplomacy with China.
<Dr. Kwak's short profile>
Dr. Tae-Hwan Kwak, Professor Emeritus at Eastern Kentucky University, former President of KINU (Korea Institute for National Unification, ROK government think-tank), Visiting Chair-Professor and former Director of IFES, Kyungnam University, is a specialist on Northeast Asian affairs and Korean peace and unification issues. He taught international relations for over thirty years at Eastern Kentucky University and Korean universities. Dr. Kwak is a recipient of the Global Peace Foundation's 2012 Innovative Scholarship for Peace Award and an honorary degree in Political Science from Kyungnam University in 2019.
He has worked for more than fifteen NGOs. He is now Chairman, Institute for Korean Peninsula Future Strategies. Chairman of the Korean Peninsula Unification Council through Neutralization, Executive Senior Adviser of Korean American Public Action Committee (KAPAC), and President of Korean Unification Strategies Research Council (L.A., USA). Dr. Kwak is the author, editor, and co-editor of 32 books, including One Korea: Visions of Korean Unification (Routledge, 2017), North Korea and Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia (Ashgate, 2014), etc. He is a columnist and has authored more than 350 scholarly articles. Email:thkwak38@hotmail.com