Home Japanese values Is South Korean President Yoon really ‘tough on China’? – The Diplomat

Is South Korean President Yoon really ‘tough on China’? – The Diplomat


The election of President Yoon Suk-yeol has raised expectations among Korean observers and policymakers in Washington about the future of South Korea-US relations. Such predictions raised the prospect that Yoon would “more actively support President Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy” and “take a less deferential political stance toward Beijing.”

During his campaign, Yoon stressed the need for strategic clarity in South Korea’s foreign policy, which aimed to clearly delineate South Korea as an ally of the United States while not allowing Chinese pressure to limit the South Korea-US alliance. Thus, Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit in July seemed to indicate that Yoon was delivering on his promises and that widespread expectations of South Korean strategic clarity were coming to fruition. Many saw the summit as a pivotal moment when South Korea’s foreign policy goals would align more with those of the United States and other NATO member countries.

However, the outcome of the summit demonstrated that South Korea’s foreign policy remains not only wary of China, but actively constrained by Beijing. Yoon’s political rhetoric and deals have worked within the bounds of what is acceptable to China.

During the summit, South Korea’s partnership with NATO was significantly dampened in two ways: limited trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States, and Yoon’s vague rhetoric, which avoided mentioning China by name. Yoon had the opportunity to expand his foreign policy to align with the United States and move toward strategic clarity. Instead, the limited progress should cause pundits to re-examine what strategic clarity means for the Yoon administration and the South Korea-US alliance.

While Yoon’s campaign promised to improve relations with Japan, the evolution of Japan-South Korea-US trilateral cooperation was seen as strong evidence of how the NATO summit has aligned South Korea’s policy with that of its Western partners. Repairing relations between Japan and South Korea would allow the United States to work collectively with its two closest partners on Indo-Pacific security issues and pivot the South Korean government toward the Chinese challenge.

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Specifically, the decision to resume trilateral military exercises could be interpreted as Yoon’s rejection of the Moon administration’s “three no’s.” It was a list of promises made to appease China after the THAAD deployments, which included a promise that South Korea would not pursue a formal trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. The move towards trilateral defense cooperation gives the impression that Yoon is indeed willing to strengthen partnerships without making concessions to China.

However, the resumption of trilateral military exercises is a continuation of a pre-existing policy rather than a marked shift that has redefined the South Korea-US alliance. Prior to their cancellation in 2017 by the Moon administration, military drills were the core of trilateral cooperation. The cooperation continues to focus on the North Korean nuclear threat as it has done before, without mentioning China in the trilateral statement. In fact, it’s a step back from mentioning the Taiwan Strait as a key security area at the June 11 trilateral meeting of defense ministers. Continuing on this point at the NATO summit would have broadened the scope of shared security issues to include China.

With American and Japanese attention directly on China, the NATO summit seemed like the appropriate forum for South Korea to recognize China as a shared security challenge. Continuation of previous policy and lack of consensus on China can be expected as this is the start of the Yoon administration, but they should remind the new administration and Korea watchers of the difficulty in seeking strategic clarity.

How China constrains South Korean policy is nuanced but can be extrapolated from the two countries’ bilateral talks. South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin visited China from August 8-10 – notably as China held live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait, which were harshly criticized by states States and their allies, Japan and Australia. Park made no mention of China’s military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, and the South Korean Foreign Ministry did not issue an official statement on the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

During Park’s talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, both affirmed the importance of bilateral cooperation. Park noted China’s important role in North Korean politics and peace on the peninsula. He also suggested “consultations” on ways to “promote communication and cooperation at regional and global levels”. The general remarks can be read as diplomatic gestures but are also the sign of a persistent strategic ambiguity.

Without a detailed understanding of what “mutual trust” and “mutually beneficial cooperation” mean in China-South Korea relations, the new administration’s hawkish stance becomes confused as Seoul fails to clearly define what might look like the future bilateral cooperation. Furthermore, remarks that China is a major part of North Korea’s problems – especially right after the NATO summit – should raise the question of whether Seoul was trying to assure China that the participation de Yoon at the NATO summit was not aimed at China.

From calling the United States the “only ally” to say that “the majority of South Koreans, especially young people, don’t like China,” Yoon seemed determined in his support for strategic clarity during the election campaign. However, his rhetoric at the NATO summit was much more docile, which did not go unnoticed by observers. His speech at the summit mentioned the challenge of a “new structure of competitions and conflicts” and the threats to “universal values”. The omission of China as a responsible party for these threats is significant compared to the positions of the United States and NATO. For the first time, NATO’s Strategic Concept 2022 identified China as a major challenge to its “interests, security and values”. Again, Yoon intentionally refrained from referring to China by name – unlike Australia and Japan – and aligned his goals with those of the United States.

Given the initial enthusiasm for a conservative and tough-on-China president, progress has been much slower and more passive than many would have expected. Since Yoon’s actions are less robust compared to his campaign promises, Washington and Korea watchers should take heed of the constraints that limit South Korea’s move toward strategic clarity.