Author: Daniel Sneider, Stanford University
The goals of US President Joe Biden’s recent trip to Japan and South Korea were simple — to shore up the alliance system and make clear to allies that the United States is not going to abandon Asia because of the war in Europe. The well-planned visit displayed a three-pronged strategy.
Traditional alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia as well as a de facto alliance with Taiwan remain at the centre of US strategy in Asia. On one side is the Quad, the four-party security dialogue that has become the core of multilateral security cooperation in the region. The third component emerged during the trip itself in the form of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) — a loose economic association designed to compensate for the retreat from free trade agreements.
Most commentators marked the trip a success, except for Biden’s murky signalling on Taiwan. But it was hardly a sure thing. The ability of the Biden administration to make this show of American leadership in Asia rested on a stroke of political luck — the election of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol.
Alliance relations with the previous Moon Jae-In government, and likely with a potential successor progressive government, were by no means hostile. Moon and Biden issued an extensive joint statement last year with a long list of shared goals. It even contained a muted acknowledgement of the importance of peace and security in the Taiwan straits, unusual for a South Korean government. But Moon was visibly uneasy about placing South Korea within broad US efforts to contain China and focussed on achieving an engagement breakthrough with North Korea.
When the war in Europe hit, South Korea was slow to join Western sanctions and embrace the common cause with Ukraine. This reflected its desire to keep the door open to renewed talks with Pyongyang.
Yoon, who took office only 10 days before Biden’s arrival, moved quickly to align South Korea more fulsomely with Biden’s goals. The new government prioritised reinforcing the security alliance, announcing the resumption of consultations on extended deterrence, deployments of strategic US forces to counter escalation threats, and restoring joint military exercises.
The Yoon administration shares the American view that China and Russia are no longer willing to join efforts to restrain North Korea. They believe that the recent spate of North Korean missile tests and preparation for a nuclear test partly reflect a green light from the two countries.
Perhaps even more striking is the readiness of the new South Korean government to embrace a more global role in step with the United States and Europe. Moon was hesitant to participate in Biden’s assertion of a global struggle of democracies versus autocracies, particularly regarding China. The joint statement issued by the two leaders envisions an alliance that ‘has grown far beyond the Korean peninsula, reflecting the pivotal role of our countries as global leaders in democracy, economy, and technology’. Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit in late June will be a manifest expression of this more global stance.
A key piece of this shift in policy, with strong US encouragement, is the improvement of relations with Japan and tighter trilateral security cooperation. There are clear efforts from both sides to shift the tone in relations away from the nearly dysfunctional state reached under the Moon administration.
A visit by the South Korean foreign minister to Tokyo is expected soon. The two leaders may also meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit and perhaps in a trilateral summit with Biden. Yoon’s ability to make compromises on difficult wartime history issues was aided by the surprisingly strong showing for the conservatives in the 1 June South Korean local elections. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida faces pressure from the Japanese right but may have more manoeuvring room after the July Upper House elections.
The trickiest areas of cooperation between South Korea and the new Biden framework remain the Quad and the IPEF. The Yoon administration is ready to explore at least some level of participation in the Quad. But there is some resistance from Tokyo regarding Seoul’s full participation, reflecting a persistent view in Japan that South Korea is not a reliable partner. The Biden administration is treading carefully on this for now, waiting to see if steps to improve South Korea–Japan relations yield real progress.
Yoon’s quick embrace of the IPEF was essential to a claim by the Biden administration that it represents the largest economies in the region outside of China. The joint statement with Biden laid out a long list of areas of technological cooperation with an implicit agenda of joining hands in a strategic rivalry with China. This agenda builds on the Moon–Biden joint statement of last year.
Yoon may be ready to go further down this road, but South Korean tech firms, like their counter parts in Japan and the United States, reject any talk of decoupling as unrealistic. Seoul is being careful not to close the doors to Beijing in an effort to restrain Pyongyang.
Uncertainties exist, but there is little doubt that the change in power in South Korea was a strategic boon for Biden’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific. For that, he needs to thank the voters of South Korea’s vibrant democracy.
Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer of International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute.
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