The recent visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to the ROK saw new strides in cooperation and is leading to a swift surge in bilateral relations. The U.S.-ROK alliance itself was formed during the Cold War, and is hence a vestige and legacy of that. In the post-Cold War era, the undertone of the alliance was once moderated as interactions grew. However, as strategic competition by major powers has intensified and the U.S. administration has pivoted to strengthening alliances as a key diplomatic strategy, the camp confrontation undertone of the U.S.-ROK alliance has come back with a vengeance.
The US-ROK summit mainly covered three areas:
The first was to strengthen supply chain and economic security cooperation in areas such as semiconductors, new-energy batteries, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nuclear energy, as well as to step up foreign investment reviews and export controls on key technologies.
The second was to expand security cooperation. They announced that they would resume and expand joint military exercises on and around the Korean peninsula and restart the Extended Deterrence Strategy Consultation mechanism. The U.S. will deploy additional strategic assets on the peninsula if necessary.
The third was to strengthen global strategic cooperation based on shared values. The ROK has announced it would join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework; work with the U.S. to address “digital hegemony,” maintain an open internet, promote democracy, human rights, the rule of law and a norm-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region; and play a greater role in the Democracy Summit and the Quad, among other things. Most of the above-mentioned areas are either explicitly or implicitly targeted at China.
The content of this U.S.-ROK summit was similar to that of last year’s, except that the previous South Korean government’s position on China-U.S. strategic competition was more measured and restrained. The new ROK government has developed more clear and actionable positions on core issues. It is fair to say that the U.S.-ROK alliance has made major headway with respect to areas of cooperation, creating a mechanism for synergy and target positioning. At the same time, ROK President Yun Seok-yeol is faced with the situation of “a small government but a strong opposition.” Nevertheless, partly with the support of the U.S., his administration gradually loosened the constraints of the opposition parties in personnel appointments, internal and external policies and local elections, and it has strengthened its ruling base.
Although it remains to be seen how the U.S.-ROK alliance will unfold, the signals it has already sent will have significant implications for the region. The U.S. and the ROK are attempting to cooperate on an exclusive basis in the high-tech and supply chain sectors, which is bound to have a major impact on the highly integrated economic relations between China and the ROK. Given that the ROK already has an extended deterrence guarantee from the U.S. and a clear advantage over the DPRK in conventional weapons, heightened U.S. military deployments on the peninsula will not only add to the DPRK’s sense of insecurity and stoke hard-line countermeasures but will also pose potential threats to neighboring countries such as China and Russia, thus exacerbating the regional security dilemma.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and the ROK are promoting a values-based alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, intensifying regional divisions. This runs counter to the post-Cold War era’s regional cooperation process, which was not based on ideology.
Although the U.S.-ROK gesture to strengthen the alliance comes with a lot of force, its subsequent progress will be subject to more constraints.
First, the ROK’s cooperation with the U.S. in the economic, scientific and technological fields is no substitute for economic relations with China. South Korea is trying to establish an industrial advantage — a semiconductor alliance with the U.S. — that would forestall China’s ability to catch up.
In fact, the ROK has benefited greatly from its trade with China, as its exports to the country account for more that 26 percent of its total. In 2021, a survey by the ROK International Trade Association found that, of the 12,586 types of goods imported (including raw materials and components), 1,850 of those imported from China had an 80 percent dependence on China. In November, China’s restriction on industrial urea exports on environmental grounds, for example, nearly brought the ROK’s freight industry to a halt. South Korea cannot get rid of its high dependence on China in the industrial chain in the short term.
Second, the ROK believes that joining the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is conducive to expanding its own economic space, but the framework lacks substantial benefits for other member countries in market access and tax breaks. Rather, it has more restrictions, so its future still hangs in the balance.
Third, on issues related to the Korean Peninsula and regional affairs, the new ROK government does not share the strategic ambiguity of the previous government. It believes that the more solid the U.S.-ROK alliance becomes, the more the ROK will rise in standing and value. In truth, if it fully follows U.S. policy, it may well end up exacerbating regional tensions and antagonism, blunt its own leverage in pursuing a middle course on the peninsula and on regional issues and run counter to its ambition to become a pivotal global state. A significant U.S. military presence would put the ROK at the forefront of a security confrontation between major powers, and the nuclear issue would heat up.
Recognizing these challenges, the ROK briefed China on the summit with the U.S. immediately after President Biden’s visit, hoping to avoid misunderstandings on the Chinese side. The ROK stressed that the IPEF “does not exclude China” and that follow-up negotiations on the China-ROK FTA are still underway.
Economic and political elites in the ROK have called for a balanced approach between the strategic partnership with China and relations with the United States. A new Cold War is not in the interest of most countries, nor is it in keeping with globalization. Hence it is necessary for regional countries to exercise restraint and prudence to avoid erring on the wrong side of history.