South Korea supports US Indo-Pacific strategy amid growing Chinese dominance

Korean participation in Indo-Pacific strategy is expected to enhance US operations in South China Sea

US-Korea Joint Military Exercise in 2016 (Source: Republic of Korea Armed Force)

US-Korea Joint Military Exercise in 2016 (Source: Republic of Korea Armed Force)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) – South Korea President Moon Jae-in (文在寅) announced a new era of collaboration between his country and the U.S. in the South China Sea, which is expected to reinforce the capacity of the U.S. and its allies to operate in the region, during a joint conference with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 30, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reports.

Seoul has been actively supportive of Washington’s security operations around the globe, from East Timor to the Gulf of Aden, yet it has maintained an ambiguous position when it comes to the South China Sea since it needs Chinese support on North Korea-related issues, the SCMP writes. However, South Korea is for the first time linking its economic policy with the U.S.'s geopolitical strategy.

“Under the regional cooperation principles of openness, inclusiveness and transparency, we have agreed to put forth harmonious cooperation between Korea’s new Southward policy and the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy,” Moon said at the joint conference after his meeting with Trump.

South Korea has found itself in a difficult spot lately, positioned between its longtime security ally, the U.S., and its biggest trade partner, China. The latter previously imposed unofficial sanctions on South Korea, including boycotts on its tourism and entertainment industries, when the U.S. deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on Korean soil back in 2017.

Seoul announced its new Southward policy to tackle the economic challenges through diversifying its market and deepening its ties with Southeast Asian countries. Still, in order not to further irritate Beijing, it has attempted to tone down this China-exit strategy and has not tied it to the U.S. geopolitical master plan until now.

The SMCP cites multiple Korean and the U.S. diplomatic sources, saying that South Korea is facing “tremendous pressure” from the White House to make a clear-cut stand. Senior researcher Timothy Heath at Rand Corporation, a California-based think tank, also agreed that Washington pressure is one of the reasons behind Seoul’s decision.

“With Trump taking steps to ease tensions by meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (金正恩), Washington may have asked Seoul to do more to support US efforts to promote stability and balance in the region,” Heath said, adding that “Seoul may have also calculated that Beijing is in a weak position to retaliate, due to the ongoing trade war with the U.S.”

The U.S. and its allies have been sending military vessels to the South China Sea to counterbalance increasing Chinese military activities in the region. Analysts say Korean involvement could greatly strengthen their efforts, according to the report.

“China wants to establish a position of dominance over its neighbors, hoping to be able to dictate how its neighbors act,” said Bruce Bennett, another senior researcher at the Rand Corporation. He emphasized that South Korea should be prepared to stand up to Chinese assertions of dominance, “otherwise, at some point China will likely insist that South Korea pay China for the right to transit the South China Sea.“

Nonetheless, experts believe that South Korean presence in the contested water is unlikely to increase significantly in the short term, as Seoul has been careful not to antagonize Beijing and would likely continue to do so. Heath said “the US is mainly interested in the political and symbolic importance of South Korea’s support for international freedoms in the South China Sea.”

“Occasional South Korean participation in patrols could help serve that goal,” Heath told the news agency, adding that “South Korea may also carry out diplomatic and political statements and activities in support of a free and open South China Sea, giving the US a symbolic victory.”