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Strategic Realignments in Asia: South Korea and The New Quad?

May 03, 2022

South Korea is signaling a dramatic reorientation in its foreign policy, and it could become a key player in an expanded Quad platform. 

Two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the geopolitical shockwaves are still being felt across Asia. In particular, the long-simmering fault lines within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the “Quad,” have been fully exposed. 

Despite holding a seemingly cordial online summit with his Indian counterpart, U.S. President Joseph Biden has openly criticized India’s “own problems,” referring to the South Asian country’s declining human rights situation under the populist-nationalist Narendra Modi administration. On their part, top Indian officials have openly questioned the West’s moral ascendancy on human rights issues, even criticizing anti-Asian racism in America amid an escalating tit-for-tat between the two (until recently) burgeoning strategic partners. 

At the heart of the simmering tensions between India and America is the South Asian country’s insistence on maintaining robust defense and economic ties with Moscow in contravention of Western sanctions on Russia. Just as the U.S. and India reassess the texture and trajectory of their strategic relations, however, South Korea is signaling a dramatic reorientation in its foreign policy. 

South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has openly expressed his interest in joining the Quad as part of his broader efforts to revitalize defense ties with the U.S. as well as assert his country’s position in Indo-Pacific affairs. As a U.S. treaty ally, a top defense exporter, and economic dynamo, South Korea could soon emerge as a crucial node in emerging alternative ‘Quads’ in the Indo-Pacific.  

Not Out of the Woods Yet 

In fairness, America and India have tried to find a common ground despite their profound disagreements on Russia. During the Fourth Annual U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Meeting, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III welcomed their Indian counterparts, Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh and Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar, to Washington. 

The two sides vowed to pursue comprehensive strategic cooperation, exploring joint efforts in the realms of trade and finance, COVID-19 pandemic management, climate change mitigation and adaptation, maritime security and cybersecurity, and counter-terrorism. Shortly before the high-stakes dialogue, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a virtual summit with President Joseph Biden in a clear show of solidarity and mutual respect. 

By and large, however, it seems that the two powers may struggle to simply agree to disagree on a high-stakes geopolitical issue. During their recent visit to Kyiv, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made it clear that America is now committed to a containment strategy against Russia. This means any major trade and energy deal between New Delhi and Moscow would directly undermine Washington’s strategy. 

No wonder then, the Pentagon has now reiterated its warnings to India against procurement of any big-ticket defense item Russia, especially the S-400 missile defense system. The U.S.has already sanctioned Turkey, a fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, over the purchase of the prized defense system from Russia. 

In late-April, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby reiterated, "[w]e've been very clear with India as well as other nations that we don't want to see them rely on Russia for defense needs. We've been nothing but honest about that and discouraging that." 

Far from backing down, India has insisted on maintaining high-level cooperation with Russia as a matter of national security. In response to U.S. warnings, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman simply questioned the feasibility of reducing her country’s strategic reliance on Russia. 

Referring to threats in India’s own neighborhood, she emphasized the need for India “to be strong enough to protect itself” by procuring state-of-the-art weaponries from traditional partners. "India wants to be friends with the European Union and the Western, free, liberal world, but not as a weak friend that needs desperate help here and there," she added, making it clear that New Delhi is in no mood to comply with the West’s containment strategy against Russia. 

Meanwhile, disagreements over human rights and democracy issues have persisted. Following his recent meeting with his Indian counterpart earlier this month, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that Washington is monitoring “concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police, and prison officials”. 

Outraged by Western criticism of India’s democratic credentials, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has criticized the West’s “hypocrisy” and recently went so far as warning “we will not be reticent about speaking out” on racism and human rights issues in America. 

Korea Steps In 

Structural tensions in U.S.-India relations have refocused attention on an unsung power in the region, namely South Korea. Despite boasting one of the world’s largest economies and most advanced armed forces, the Northeast Asian country has historically adopted a more low-profile role in shaping regional affairs. By and large, South Korea tried to maintain equally warm ties with all superpowers, especially the U.S. and China. 

In particular, outgoing President Moon Jae-in has been singularly focused on ending the decades-old conflict in the Korean Peninsula that he largely shunned other major geopolitical flashpoints in the region. After all, the Moon administration was keenly aware that it needed not only the assistance of the U.S., a treaty ally, but also China’s and Russia’s, which happen to be top strategic partners of North Korea, in order to implement his intra-Korean peace initiative. 

Unlike India, however, South Korea has never been overly dependent on Russia nor reluctant in joining Western sanctions against the Eurasian power following its invasion of Ukraine. A vibrant democracy and top U.S. treaty ally, South Korea’s strategic and ideological orientation is also far more aligned with the West. If anything, incoming Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, hailing from the conservative opposition People Power Party, has signaled his commitment to make South Korea a major force in the region. 

“This is a moment of change and flux in international politics. It calls for clarity and boldness, and for a commitment to principles. South Korea should no longer be confined to the Korean Peninsula,” wrote the Korean president-elect earlier this year in an influential piece for the Foreign Affairs magazine. Describing his country as a “global pivotal state,” he called on his country to advance “freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.” 

The Other Quad? 

The incoming Korean president has also vowed to pursue “a new era of cooperation” with China based on “mutual-respect” while welcoming expanded defense cooperation with the U.S., including hosting American nuclear-capable bombers, advanced missile defense systems, and submarines. 

While well known for its pop-culture industry and electronics products, South Korea is also a leading player in the global defense industry. This year, combined defense exports by top Korean companies, namely LIG Nex1 Co., Hanwha and Korea Aerospace Industries Ltd. (KAI), could top $10 billion, underscoring South Korea’s growing importance in shaping the international security environment. 

Southeast Asia, in particular, is a top destination for South Korean defense exports, which are usually more affordable than NATO counterparts. Having already acquired modern Korean-made jet planes, key regional states of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand are expected to be among the first customers of state-of-the-art South Korean defense exports in the coming years, most notably the next-generation KF-21 Boramae fighter. 

As a global technological and economic powerhouse, South Korea has become a regular participant in expanded G7 multilateral fora. Soon the northeast Asian country could also become a key node in an expanded Quad platform, along with Australia, US, Japan and India. In fact, incoming president Yoon has made it clear that he will “positively review” any invitation to join a Quad Plus arrangement. 

After decades of playing a relatively marginal role in regional geopolitics, South Korea is set to become a major force in Indo-Pacific affairs – and, conceivably, even a key member in any potential Washington-led alternative Quad along with fellow U.S. treaty allies of Japan and Australia.  

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