Between Giants: South Korea and the U.S.-China Rivalry

An American ally and a Chinese economic partner, South Korea is trying to hedge between two great powers as they compete for influence.

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South Korean conservatives protest the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong island in late 2010. (AP)

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.

When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's government announced the accord with Japan, politicians and civic groups protested. The agreement had been negotiated too quickly and secretly, they decried, demanding that it come before the National Assembly. In the heat of South Korea's election-year politics, politicians railed against security cooperation with Japan and lambasted Lee's government for selling out their country to Tokyo." The idea of offering our military intelligence to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces is utterly unreasonable," declared Democratic United Party spokesperson Kim Hyun in a statement, demanding an apology from President Lee. Two members of Lee's administration resigned, and opposition politicians have submitted a no-confidence vote calling for the prime minister's resignation. Lee's government shelved the accord.

Commentators largely blame the fracas on the lingering Japanese-South Korean tensions over historical and territorial disputes. Many Koreans resent Japan for not clearly acknowledging the atrocities it committed during its occupation of the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. Japanese leaders have at times issued apologies, but politicians and intellectuals on Japan's right still routinely deny well-established historical facts about the country's past human rights violations And Japan and South Korea both claim the same string of tiny islands -- known as Tokdo to Koreans, Takeshima to Japanese, and trouble to everyone else -- which have become a nationalist minefield for the two countries to traverse.

Still, there's something more behind the unraveling of the GSOMIA accord -- South Korean ambivalence about the country's role in the unfolding U.S.-China drama. Several defense and foreign policy analysts in Seoul told me, when I visited recently, that many of their countrymen shied away from GSOMIA because they saw it as part of a U.S.-led security architecture positioned against China. They added that many South Koreans are dismayed that, as they perceive it, the U.S. increasingly sees China as a military threat. A professor at the Korea National Defense University named Lee Byeong-Gu told me, "In particular, signing the GSOMIA agreement is worrying to Koreans in light of the recent U.S. 'pivot' or 'rebalancing' toward Asia, which many people fear represents an increased containment effort toward China. Some South Koreans are calling for their government to sign an intelligence-sharing agreement with Beijing as well as with Tokyo. South Korean legislator Shim Yoon-joe commented that signing such a pact with both Japan and China is important in order "to wipe out the allegation that the Korea-Japan military pact is a stepping stone to trilateral cooperation to check China."

South Korean analysts also emphasized to me that China is their country's top trading partner. As Aidan Foster-Carter put it, "South Korea can hardly afford to be seen as ganging up on the country whose growth largely drives its own." This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between South Korea and China. One researcher at a think tank in Seoul remarked to me that his institute has planned conferences and other events to commemorate the anniversary, and that South Korea's many other foreign policy institutes are all doing the same. At a time when the Americans appear to be orchestrating a coalition to balance against China, South Koreans are celebrating with it a milestone in productive and friendly relations.

Yet South Koreans are as wary of accommodating China as they are of containing it. Seoul resents Beijing's support for the North Korean regime. If North Koreans continue to kill South Koreans (as they did in 2010 in the attacks against the Cheonan frigate and Yongpyeong Island), Seoul may grow less tolerant of Beijing's sheltering of Pyongyang. Or increased Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea and East China Sea disputes may lead Seoul to decide that it needs allies to protect it from the behemoth in its backyard.

It's possible that Chinese policies could one day lead South Korea to edge closer to the U.S. and Japan, but that day has not yet come, and China may never even emerge as a security threat that requires the sort of balancing coalition that the U.S. seems to envision. As long as this ambiguity continues -- or as long as Washington tolerates its ally's coziness with Beijing -- South Korea's strategic position will likely push it strongly toward hedging. As such, Seoul will resist policies, like the agreement with Japan, that appear to situate it clearly on the side of one great power or another.