ROK is not a 'balancer' between China and the U.S.
Robert Kelly


Editor's note: Robert Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

Officials from the Republic of Korea (ROK) will meet both Chinese and U.S. officials soon. The ROK foreign minister, Chung Eui-Yong, will visit China and hold talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Around the same time, the national security advisors of the ROK, Japan, and the United States' will meet in Maryland. Both meetings will discuss the same topics – security in northeast Asia, the missile and nuclear programs of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), and China's growing weight in the region.

This has sparked much discussion of the ROK's supposed balancing or hinge position between the U.S. and China. In this narrative, Washington and Beijing are engaged in a subtle competition to cooperate with the ROK. Washington is a political and security partner of Seoul; Beijing is the ROK's biggest export partner and a regional and cultural neighbor with much-shared history. Seoul is pursuing a policy of "strategic ambiguity" between these two suitors.

This story is particularly appealing in the ROK. The narrative of Sino-U.S. contestation flatters Seoul's sense of its importance and weight: two large countries are jockeying over it. It also strikes a chord with the ROK political left. The ROK left has always been suspicious of U.S. power on the peninsula. It has long sought greater distance from the U.S. on security matters, particularly in order to engage the DPRK without international interference. While anti-Americanism has faded in the ROK since its peak in the 1970s and 80s, what remains resides on the left. And importantly, it is the left that holds the ROK presidency at the moment. The current ROK administration would indeed like some distance from the U.S. and also constructive relations with China.

ROK and China are keen to resume collaboration on many fronts. The two cooperated closely on public health-related matters in their fight against COVID-19. This year is "China-ROK Year of Cultural Exchange" in the run-up to 2022, which marks the 30th anniversary of China-ROK diplomatic relations. Much is also being made of the fact that ROK and China are co-signatories on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement between 15 Asia Pacific nations, which aims to strengthen regional trade. China has been working to accelerate the negotiations on a China-Japan-ROK free trade agreement. The potential for further economic links is obvious.

This "balancing" story only goes so far, though, and it exaggerates to suggest that the ROK faces a looming strategic choice between the U.S. and China. The ROK is a treaty ally of the U.S., and this locks it into a broadly pro-American foreign policy posture which even the ROK left does not have the political support – or even the political desire, I believe - to change.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump walks with ROK's President Moon Jae-in at the White House, Washington, D.C., April 11, 2019. /Reuters

Former U.S. President Donald Trump walks with ROK's President Moon Jae-in at the White House, Washington, D.C., April 11, 2019. /Reuters

The U.S. has many partners around the world, but surprisingly few formal treaty allies. Israel, for example, is widely termed a U.S. "ally", but that is not legally accurate. The ROK, by contrast, has one of the oldest formalized alliances with the U.S.

As a long-time foreign resident in the ROK, I regularly see this public tilt toward the U.S. My students all study English; most want to attend college or graduate school in the United States. They take cultural cues from the U.S. – movies, music, fashion, food. U.S. films and TV shows are endemic on television here. The ROK media obsesses over attention paid in the U.S. to ROK cultural products. Chinese cultural influence has indeed expanded here; there is Chinese-language radio, for example, now in the ROK. But this is still massively outpaced by U.S. cultural penetration.

More important than these soft cultural markers, though, is the presence of U.S. bases and soldiers. This physical presence puts very real limits on any ROK drift from the U.S. Forward U.S. basing makes concrete that the ROK is a U.S. warfighting ally, regardless of what leftist ROK politicians say.

This need not mean that the ROK is containing China, nor will the ROK join the Quad or an anti-Chinese alliance imminently. But engaging China and speaking about it cautiously does not mean that the ROK is now somehow at a mid-point between Beijing and Washington. At best, under this leftist president, Moon Jae-In, the ROK has tracked a little away from Washington and a little toward Beijing.

It is simply smart foreign policy for the ROK to downplay the alliance in its engagement with China, and the U.S. is wise to let that slide as its actual impact on the ROK-U.S. relationship is negligible.

We will know that the ROK is genuinely a balancer state when a major ROK politician proposes expelling the U.S. military and tolerating the consequent capital flight as necessary for the ROK to pursue better relations with China. That day may come, but it seems still a long way off.

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