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Korean Dilemma

Beyond the worsening US-China rivalry, there are internal pressures within South Korea‘s restive society, which is becoming increasingly suspicious of China‘s intent and trustworthiness. Majority of South Koreans now view China as the biggest threat to a hypothetically-unified Korea, and not Japan and a 2020 Pew Poll found 83 per cent of South Koreans distrusting Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the ‘right thing in world affairs’


As global power structures evolve from unipolarity or bipolarity towards multipolarity, the era of convenient fence-sitters is fast diminishing with countries expected to take decisive positions.

Even if countries selectively make issue-based decisions (which may seem occasionally contradictory) of aligning with some ‘blocs’ as opposed to others, owing to their own topical dynamics and necessities, doublespeak may not be a viable option any longer. India’s recent decision to ‘abstain’ from voting against the two resolutions condemning Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, at the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly, was one such decisive act.

Despite criticism of the Indian decision amongst American stakeholders, the context of India’s ‘strategic compulsion’ with its own security/regional calculus (which is clearly not inimical to US security interests) was understood, even if not publicly acknowledged. Delhi’s ‘abstain’ decision was a calculated one on a specific issue (the verdict on its prudence is still out there), as it was always loaded with implications and repercussions.

It was much like the earlier decision of joining the Quad (Quadrilateral agreement between US, Japan, Australia and India), which had its own expected resonances in Moscow and, obviously, Beijing. South Korea has retained a quixotically ambiguous position overall that has sought to appease all, and offend none, even though it remained precariously vulnerable and requiring international intervention to defend its varied interests. This tact of mealy-mouthed diplomacy since the 1980s and 90s runs parallel to its economic success, despite emerging as one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War (1950-1953).

One of the consequences of that war was the subsequent malalignment with China, wherein the Chinese only recognised North Korea, and therefore the South Koreans reciprocated by recognising only the Republic of China or Taiwan. South Korea was to be the last Asian country to establish diplomatic relations with China and did so as late as 1992. However, almost immediately, the Chinese signed a peace treaty with South Korea and by 1994 the Chinese withdrew from the Military Armistice Commission at Panmunjom.

Counter-intuitively, within the next 10 years, China became South Korea’s leading trade partner ~ this bilateral narrative ran contrary to the otherwise sharply deteriorating relations between South Korea’s strategic ally, the United States of America and China. Clearly commercial interests overrode geopolitical, territorial, and cultural differences and perhaps the only element of commonality between Seoul and Beijing was the perceived animosity towards Japan.

Shared memories of excesses and colonization committed by the Imperial Japanese Army and Tokyo’s refusal to fully condemn its historical wrongs or commit to greater reparations towards the same, wounds South Korea’s ties with Tokyo. Again, this common perception besetting South Korea and China ties with Japan runs contrary to the larger logic of strategic ‘blocs’ at play in the Indo-Pacific region, which is getting sharply cleaved between the US-led ‘Free World bloc’ and the ‘Sinosphere’, wherein Japan, like South Korea, is strategically and intractably attached to the USled bloc for security guarantees.

Now, as Chinese expansionism and belligerence rises, a natural convergence of like-minded Sino-wary nations have stitched together the Quad. Despite being a major regional power, South Korea remained conspicuous by its earlier reluctance to join the grouping. The fact that China is economically overleveraged, with approximately 25 per cent of trade activity for South Korea, is palpable and unmistakable.

Beyond the worsening USChina rivalry, there are internal pressures within South Korea’s restive society, which is becoming increasingly suspicious of China’s intent and trustworthiness. Majority of South Koreans now view China as the biggest threat to a hypothetically-unified Korea, and not Japan ~ and a 2020 Pew Poll found 83 per cent of South Koreans distrusting Chinese President Xi Jinping to do the ‘right thing in world affairs’ (aggressive optics from Hongkong or South China Seas haven’t helped either).

China’s severe retaliatory actions following South Korea’s deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile system (even though it was clarified that it was towards safeguarding the country from threats from North Korea, and not China), further diminished perceptions about the Chinese in the eyes of the South Koreans, who too expressed counter sentiments of reverse-nationalism.

Politically, the conservatives are on the rise in South Korea, and the country has just elected its new President, Yoon Suk-yeol, from the nationalist-conservative, People Power Party (PPP). This brewing of internal and external pressures on Seoul is militating against the commercial interests underwritten by China, along with the soft leverage that Beijing brings to the table with its own unique (if complex) relationship with Pyongyang.

The South Korean trapeze act of balancing all major powers is becoming very difficult. In a barely veiled threat, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, Global Times, carried an editorial warning the incoming South Korean President that he “should not rashly choose sides as it will undermine diplomatic flexibility, and stable relations with China”, as they are apparently a “necessary choice”.

However, Yoon Suk-yeol will be answerable to his own conservative constituents and he has already alluded to the necessity of making ‘important strategic choices’ (he had critically spoken in favour of enhanced THAAD deployment in his electoral campaign). This development clearly concerns Beijing, as it marks a potential shift from the ambiguity of stance witnessed till now.

The Chinese editorial highlighted the conundrum by insisting ‘social stability and economic development is much more important, and the president-elect will not risk losing big for small problems.’ It went on to hit below the belt by invoking the fate of the hapless Ukrainians as an example that “a security alliance with the US cannot guarantee South Korea’s security!” This is patent coercive Chinese reaction to any political development in the region that strengthens the other ‘blocs’, in this case, strengthening the Sino-wary politics in the Indo-Pacific region.

China will hope that Yoon Suk-yeol’s campaign statements were only pre-election bravado, and that a more nuanced approach will ensue, which is tempered with the economic leverage that Beijing holds ~ whereas the Sino-wary ‘bloc’ will obviously bank the recent political developments in South Korea as its own positive augury. For now, the dice is loaded against Chinese optimism, but in what form and to what extent the changed South Korean narrative will evolve will become clear in the coming days.

(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)