The South Korea-United States alliance has come a long way from being an indispensable front-line checkpoint against Communist aggression in East Asia. The Cold War structure firmly anchored in the region has now been largely dismantled, a transformation most clearly evidenced by South Korea’s diplomatic normalization with both China and Russia. While North Korea still remains a security threat to the South, the evolving strategic configurations of the region are likely to precipitate certain changes in the half-century alliance relationship between Seoul and Washington. The ever-expanding South Korea-China bilateralism, in particular, has become the locus of much interest and concern on the part of an increasing number of American policy experts that, in the long run, Seoul may eventually choose to depart the U.S.-led security framework and instead join the orbits of Beijing’s diplomacy.
The Republic of Korea (hereafter South Korea) has of late been attracting diplomatic, economic and strategic attention from both the United States and China. The curious relationship between Seoul and Beijing has come a long way from antagonistic enemies to cooperative partners for the future. While South Korea has been quite successful in engaging China, that success has at the same time generated an intricate dilemma for South Korea and its alliance with the United States. Whereas South Korea seeks to maintain amicable and beneficial relationships with both the United States and China, from America’s perspective, Seoul’s unprecedented efforts to devise a strategic balance between Washington and Beijing have been a source of sour feelings and grave concern.
South Korea’s decision in 1999 not to join the Theater Missile Defense (TMD) plan and Seoul’s sensitivity to discussing China-related issues at the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) displeased the United States. Furthermore, in the fall of 2002 when the South Korean news media were literally flooded with special reports commemorating the tenth anniversary of the diplomatic normalization between South Korea and China, America’s popularity was at a record low, catalyzed by the deaths of two schoolgirls overrun by a US armored vehicle. Anti-American candle-light protests ensued and, contrary to Washington’s wishful expectations for Lee Hoi-Chang, Roh Moo-Hyun was elected as the new President.
Mao Zedong did not see the value of reform and opening up. The China part of Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article suggested an implicit bargain that provided the conceptual basis for China’s new direction after 1978. That bargain was if China focused on domestic development and didn’t threaten the security of its neighbours, the United States would help.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.