July 16, 2019

Can South Korea and America Find a Common Position on China?

By Richard Fontaine, Kristine Lee and Hannah Suh

The image two weeks ago of Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in greeting Kim Jong Un in the Korean Demilitarized Zone captivated the world. The impromptu, trilateral meeting promised a restart to nuclear diplomacy and a peaceful resolution to the continued impasse between Washington and Pyongyang. Perhaps it signaled something else as well: a measure of U.S.-South Korean unity on the approach to North Korea. The two presidents agree that high-level, personalized diplomacy currently represents the best way to elicit progress on denuclearization. The test of time will indicate whether they are right, but it is generally positive that Washington and Seoul are aligned on the key threat to their alliance.

China is a different matter. While the Trump administration focuses on strategic competition with Beijing and has arrayed coercive economic measures aimed at producing a bilateral trade deal, Seoul has charted a different path. Stung by Chinese punishment after President Park Geun-hye installed the U.S. terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) missile defense system, and convinced it must harbor its energy and resources for the North Korean threat, the Moon administration has pursued “balanced diplomacy” to avoid confrontation with Beijing. South Korea’s hedging may be tenable in the near-term, but ultimately, the two countries’ approaches to China will serve as either a lynchpin of the alliance or its Achilles’ heel.

For the two allies to be unsynchronized in their approaches to China misses a major opportunity for productive collaboration. It also ignores the emerging geopolitical reality that the best response to growing Chinese influence across the Indo-Pacific requires a tight choreography among the region’s leading democratic powers. This, by necessity, includes the United States and South Korea. A more robust, allied approach to China is possible, and now — while the North Korea file remains in diplomatic hands — is the time to explore its contours.

Read the full article in War on the Rocks.

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