Wasting no time outlining its position on the US Indo-Pacific alliance network, the incoming Biden administration has asserted that it plans to place renewed emphasis on US defence partnerships. Among the most critical allies for a US government that has labelled China and North Korea as ‘revisionist’ and ‘rogue’ states respectively is South Korea.
This renewed emphasis on alliances has multiple implications for Seoul’s diplomatic relations with both the United States and its East Asian neighbours. This includes hope for a reinvigorated ROK–US alliance as well as apprehensions about serious discrepancies over North Korea policy. Apprehensions that Joe Biden could favour Japan over South Korea have emerged based in part on Biden’s track record while serving on the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, although a deeper analysis reveals this to not be the case.
Against this background, the new US administration will also be forced to contend with a burgeoning rapprochement between Washington’s South Korean ally and its strategic rival, the People’s Republic of China. Deepened ties between China and South Korea over the past three years have not only affected Seoul’s willingness to endorse the US strategic vision for containing China, but may also undermine Washington’s efforts to foster trilateral collaboration between Seoul and Tokyo.
The launch of the ‘reset’ in China–South Korea ties roughly coincides with the ‘three no’s’ measure taken in response to the fallout in Beijing–Seoul relations over THAAD in 2017. As the end of 2020 approaches, Beijing has unmistakably conveyed that closer ties with Seoul are a priority issue.
In a year where world leaders have been reluctant to make state visits, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has expressed a strong desire to visit South Korea by no later than mid-December 2020. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to Seoul may in part be setting the stage for a prospective official visit from Xi, which is largely contingent on the public health situation in South Korea. Beijing appears keen for Xi Jinping to convene a face-to-face with his South Korean counterpart before the US executive’s transfer of power is complete. In timing that was impeccably close to the US presidential election, representatives from the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministries convened in Beijing to discuss raising bilateral ties ‘to a new level’.
Beijing appears to be making a bid to upgrade relations with Seoul before a new alliance-oriented administration enters the White House. But Washington is wary of the potential effects Sino-South Korean engagement could have on weakening prospects for a reinvigorated relationship between Japan and South Korea.
The Biden administration’s main task in terms of inter-alliance policies in Northeast Asia will be seeking to soothe strained ties between Japan and South Korea. But pursuing diplomatic reconciliation between Seoul and Tokyo in the name of strengthening the US position in Northeast Asia runs contrary to China’s diplomatic interests.
Seoul’s unwillingness to come down in support of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) for fear of damaging its relations with China may be behind insinuations from Japan’s leadership that South Korea is not a particularly valuable partner for Tokyo in the promotion of a free and open Indo-Pacific. It is possible that Beijing is attempting to strengthen ties with Seoul in order to disrupt Japan–South Korea relations. Warmer ties with China could make South Korea reluctant to participate in measures explicitly aimed at containing Chinese power regardless of prospective improvements in Seoul–Tokyo relations.
South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, Nam Gwan-pyo, allegedly said that the so-called ‘three no’s’ do not constitute a set of binding promises. This could indicate that Seoul remains open to increased security collaboration with Tokyo. While this statement must not be taken lightly, given the way the South Korean foreign ministry reacted to controversial remarks its ambassador to Washington recently made, there is merit in not automatically assuming such remarks are reflective of concrete government policy.
Whatever steps the Biden administration takes to reinvigorate the ROK–US alliance, China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula is likely be significantly strengthened in the future.
The Blue House has attempted to assuage concerns that developing ties with Beijing and withholding its support of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy need not be detrimental to the ROK–US alliance. But Washington will need to be realistic about the extent to which China–South Korea ties have developed and how that will shape Seoul’s willingness to partner with the United States beyond the relatively narrow mandate of jointly deterring North Korea.
The Biden administration’s actions towards Seoul have the potential to shape the tone of South Korea’s relations with both the United States and China for years to come. At the very least, Washington will be forced to confront the merits and risks of attempting to expand the scope of its security partnership with South Korea in its bid to contain China. Likewise, Seoul will most likely find its efforts to maintain a balance between China and the United States increasingly unsustainable.