U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin participated in another kind of bilateral “two-plus-two” (foreign and defence ministerial) meetings in Japan and South Korea in March.
The visits marked the “first Cabinet-level, in-person, overseas travel of the Biden-Harris administration,” which came in power early this year. Displaying the priorities of US towards the Asia-pacific region, this was also the first meeting with US’ Asian allies.
The visit was subsequently followed by the first-ever Quad summit, virtually between US and its Indo-pacific partners i.e. India, Japan, and Australia, signifying the crucial nature of visits to South Korea and Japan.
Statement by Seoul said, “the ROK-US Alliance serves as the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region,” while statement from Tokyo read, “the US-Japan Alliance remains the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
The US traditionally described its alliance with Seoul as the linchpin of peace and prosperity only in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula.
Now the noticeable difference in the relations between Seoul and Washington is a change of theatre as South Korea seems to have accepted the reality that the US prioritising the Indo-pacific region in its foreign policy. Seoul knows that US’ position is unlikely to change due to the arrival of a bigger threat than North Korea in the region, People’s Republic of China.
Japan and the United States are committed to promote a free and open Indo-pacific and rules-based International order, and Korea will provide more weight to its ‘New Southern Policy’ focused on India and Southeast Asia to co-operate with the US and allies. China does not seem to be a threat to Korea’s interest, at least not at the level where Seoul would redirect its resources to contain Beijing, like Quad.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue resurrected after a fallout among countries a decade ago due to the China’s growing power in the region, but South Korea is not a party to Quad despite being a thriving democracy, promoter of free market, and most importantly, a treaty ally with the US in the Indo-pacific region.
Coronavirus pandemic, further, strengthened the idea of Quad to even convert it into alliance on the lines of NATO. The South Korean President Moon in the meeting with President Trump in 2017 said that, “Japan initiated the free and open Indo-Pacific idea, and it does not seem right for South Korea to join in the plan.”
The left-leaning Moon Jae-In government came to power after former President Park’s impeachment which resurfaced the colonial period issue in the domestic politics, and resultantly worsening the bilateral ties between the Japan and South Korea, two neighbours in East Asia Sea.
In October 2018, the Supreme Court of South Korea affirmed the right of a group of Korean citizens to sue three Japanese companies for damages stemming from forced labour subjected upon Korean nationals in mining factories during the 1910–45 Japanese occupation to which Japan responded that the issue was settled back in the 1965 Japan-Korea normalisation treaty.
According to the said treaty, Tokyo agreed to pay and provide loans as compensation. The Supreme court ruling reversed course by asserting that the 1965 treaty was a political agreement between governments and did not preclude the rights of individuals to sue the companies for damages.
The ruling did not bode well with Japan, and a spillover effect was seen in other areas that created geopolitical tensions between the nations. In response, Japan removed South Korea from its “white list” in 2019 that restricted Seoul to import sensitive Japanese goods, including chemicals used for making key products such as flat-screen televisions and semiconductors.
South Korea retaliated by taking Japan off its “white list” for fast-track trade status, marking the beginning of the trade spat between both the countries. In that same year, South Korea threatened to walk out from the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA), a pact signed between Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington for the effective sharing of intelligence related to North Korean ballistic missile developments.
The Trump administration rejuvenated Quad to confront and contain China. US masqueraded behind the concepts of free and open pacific and rules-based order to make the Quad legitimate and acceptable to countries.
To some extent, principles proposed by US to align with nations can be true, but deep-down the strategic reason for Quad 2.0 is China.
US and its allies are looking for measures to curb the expansionist China policies – be it in Himalayas (Doklam confrontation with India), Senkaku Islands (dispute with Japan), political meddling in Australia, an existential threat to Taiwan due to China’s dominance in South China Sea, Beijing’s malicious activities in the region infringing sovereignty of neighbouring nations, and obviously the trade war with the United States.
These issues, directly or indirectly, threatened the national interest of the US, and in all cases, China was on the on the opposite side of spectrum making it an adversary. Seoul, though, does not see it that way as its foreign policy do not allow it to confront China or participate in the grouping formed in the wake of rise of expansionist China. Seoul was concerned that Quad could grow as anti-China coalition which would make the Quad as a part of zero-sum game, and from the perspective of Seoul, economic and security interests of South Korea would come at stake if it joined the Quad.
South Korea has already witnessed the wrath of China in economic sphere when it agreed to install a US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) anti-missile battery in July 2016 after the speculations that North Korea had tested the ballistic missile with Nuclear warheads creating a survival threat to the South Korea.
Beijing went ballistic after this move of South Korea just few miles off its coast, stating that system’s radars could snoop on its own defences and speculated that system was installed to intimidate China. A barrage of verbal broadsides was unleashed, but with China now being South Korea’s leading trade partner, a more damaging weapon was unsheathed – economic retaliation, though under-reported at present, this dynamic continues to impact Korean business to this day.
Trump came to power on the promises that it would put American interests first and foremost, especially, the economic interest. The ‘America first’ campaign rhetoric took shape as soon as he entered into White House. On the first day in office, Trump announced that US would no longer remain participant to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and then, President Trump’s absence from the ASEAN summit in November of 2018 sent strong doubts related to US’ commitment to the region.
Similarly, Trump’s threats on imposing tariffs on Japanese automobiles were particularly unsettling for Japan which was perceived negatively among Korean businesses as they fear that US could also direct the guns of protectionist policies towards Seoul which could hurt its economy that was already facing China’s wrath.
There were initial tensions raised due to the then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric on making sure allies pay their share of the burden and talks on allowing South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons. In addition to the ‘make them pay’ rhetoric, the withdrawal of troops in Syria adds to the uncertainty in US commitment to its allies.
South Korea felt that US could abandon it in the need of an hour. The USA had also halted the annual military exercise it holds with South Korea, then resuming the drill in a modified and smaller-scale in April 2019. South Korea had serious commitment issues with the US during Trump-era and amidst all these, joining Quad Plus could have been prove last nail in the coffin.
Trump administration made enormous efforts to pressurise South Korea to take concrete steps with regard to China. Steps which would align with US interests; notably, ban on Huawei’s 5G technology to establish in South Korea. The security alliance between Seoul and Washington spilled over to economic sphere in trump period beginning the tiresome cycle of pressure and resistance which discorded the crucial alliance for US in Asia-pacific region.
The Moon government, representing the left-liberal ideology, believed that US was compelling Korean Government to work in the favour of the former’s national interests, and not on the mutual interests.
US pressured Seoul to pursue policies based on America-first approach which was infringement on the national sovereignty and direct threat to the autonomy of Seoul in taking decisions in international relations. The widening fissure in the US-South Korea alliance throughout the Trump era serves as a valuable lesson to the Biden administration that pressuring Seoul is counterproductive.
The Joe Biden administration do not see the Quad as grouping to contain China in classical terms, but as a coalition of like-minded countries supporting a market economy across nations, and rules-based Indo-Pacific.
This was reiterated by the fact that ‘China’ was not even mentioned once in the joint statement after the first-ever Quad summit in March 2021. In some scenario, if Quad expanded, that would be a grouping based on shared values. Therefore, the common ground would not be explicitly to “confront China”, but to “establish institutional rules-based order.”
The re-joining to WHO on the first day in office, and serious commitment towards climate change indicate that China would be priority for Biden administration, and even for Quad, but not before the aforementioned issues – a proposition that Seoul can support.
In fact, last year South Korea did not hesitate to join ad hoc Quad+ meetings focusing on sharing knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. These meetings also involved New Zealand and Vietnam, two other countries usually discussed as potential Quad+ members, along with Indonesia.
In other words, past experience suggests that the Quad+ would focus on cooperation among its members and involve several countries with a more nuanced approach towards China. If the Biden administration builds on this template, this would work well for South Korea.
South Korea have bitter relationship with Japan that could be resolved if Biden administration would increase its commitment with both the countries, militarily and economically. This would impede the fear of abandonment arise during Trump administration and consequently, will make South Korea less dependent on China. In the contentious military-security realm, South Korea would likely play it very safe, but room for co-operation is not totally absent.