An American ally and a Chinese economic partner, South Korea is trying to hedge between two great powers as they compete for influence.
After a decade of preoccupation with the Middle East, the United States is turning its attention toward Asia. As Washington refocuses on managing a rising China, in part by strengthening its ties with a network of Asian countries, it's discovering that at least one of its principal allies in the region may not be as fully on board as hoped. While the United States was toppling dictators and chasing terrorists, its South Korean ally has grown accustomed to a powerful China, and appears ambivalent about its role in America's plans for Asia. That's not to say that South Korea is about to evict the tens of thousands of American troops who still help deter North Korean aggression. But nor is the country apparently eager to participate in what many South Koreans see as a U.S. effort to contain China, whose rise has so far benefited their country in many ways. South Korean views are after all shaped by history: not only by the Japanese occupation, World War Two, and Korean War, but by hundreds of years of living as a small country surrounded by giants
Recent cooperation between Japan and South Korea, the United States' two key regional allies, suggested promise for a nascent coalition. In June, all three held joint military exercises and Seoul and Tokyo negotiated an accord to facilitate intelligence sharing on North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This agreement, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), would enhance America's ability to work with its two allies and represented, as political scientist Jeffrey Hornung wrote in the Japan Times, a "practical, forward-looking effort to strengthen relations between two vibrant democracies facing shared security challenges." Or it would have, at least, if it had ever been signed.