The South Korean Horn aims to strike balance amid US-China rivalry

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) has promoted stronger ties with the US since taking office in May. Photo: AFP

Seoul’s Indo-Pacific strategy aims to strike balance amid US-China rivalry

South Korea’s new regional diplomatic policy seeks closer security ties with Washington but refers to Beijing as ‘key partner’Foreign policy expert says ‘dull’ plan lacks details on how it will achieve its goals

Seong Hyeon Choi

Published: 4:17pm, 29 Dec, 2022

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) has promoted stronger ties with the US since taking office in May. Photo: AFP

South Korea’s new Indo-Pacific strategy attempts to cosy up to the US on security matters while leaving room for cooperation with China on the economy, but some observers say the plan offers few specifics about how Seoul will achieve this delicate balance.

On Wednesday, South Korea announced a new diplomatic strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. The 33-page document broadly outlined policies in areas ranging from security alliances to supply chain cooperation.

The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said the strategy aimed to expand Seoul’s vision towards the Indo-Pacific region and strengthen “strategic cooperation on bilateral, regional and global issues”.

The document mostly aligned with Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy on security issues.

It said Seoul would expand cooperation with members of “the Quad” – a security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States – and strengthen implementation of regional sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Regarding territorial disputes involving China, the strategy said “peace, stability, and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea must be respected”.

It also stated that Seoul reaffirms “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait for the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and for the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific”.

South Korea’s Yoon in hot water over alleged ‘hot mic’ moment criticising US Congress

South Korea’s Yoon in hot water over alleged ‘hot mic’ moment criticising US Congress

South Korea’s Yoon in hot water over alleged ‘hot mic’ moment criticising US Congress

The document called China a “key partner” in achieving prosperity and peace in the region. It said Seoul “will nurture a sounder and more mature relationship as we pursue shared interests based on mutual respect and reciprocity, guided by international norms and rules”.

It stressed the importance of cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing, suggesting a trilateral summit last held in 2019 could resume. It also called for South Korea and Japan to cooperate with the US and China on the green transition and digital transformation.

Washington welcomed South Korea’s new policy, stating that Seoul’s commitment to other partners across the Indo-Pacific would strengthen their alliance to “advance international peace, security and promote nuclear non-proliferation”.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said “China advocates solidarity and cooperation among all countries … and opposes the establishment of exclusive cliques”.

“We hope the South Korean side will work with China to promote the healthy and stable development of China-South Korea relations, and jointly make positive contributions to promoting regional peace, stability, development and prosperity,” Wang said.

Yoon has promoted stronger ties with the US since taking office in May, and the new Indo-Pacific strategy signals Seoul’s commitment to increasing security cooperation with Washington.

However, the addition of Beijing as a key partner shows an attempt to strike a balance amid the growing US-China rivalry.

South Koreans spooked by North’s drone incursion, military sorry for ‘insufficient’ response

Yoon has urged China to take an active role in the denuclearisation of North Korea. In an interview with Reuters, he called on Beijing to carry out its “responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council” to stop Pyongyang’s missile provocations.

However, Seoul has not followed Washington’s lead on other matters, such as its attempts to contain Beijing’s role in the international supply chain. South Korea’s economy relies heavily on China, its largest trade partner and the destination for a quarter of its exports.

South Korean semiconductor factories in China have been under pressure to shut down since October, when Washington imposed curbs on China’s use of US technology in chip production. It is not yet clear whether the South Korean companies, which were granted a year-long exemption from US sanctions, will agree to move the facilities.

Choo Jae-woo, professor of Chinese studies at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, said the Yoon administration’s new policy was vague about how it would promote the strategy.

“It’s dull and does not have any context … I cannot see what they are promoting or why, from the perspective of South Korea’s national interest,” Choo said.

“The vision and tasks in the document only introduce the government’s diplomatic stance and do not explain a detailed strategy and methodology.”

Choo said the strategy’s sparse details suggested a lack of coordination with the US on the plan, which could cause Seoul to lose Washington’s trust.

Seong Hyeon Choi

Seong Hyeon joined the SCMP in 2022. He is from South Korea and graduated with a bachelor of journalism and master of international and public affairs from the University of Hong Kong. He worked as a research intern for Korea Chair at US foreign policy think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and as a news trainee for NK news.

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