Payne Distinguished Fellow Examines South Korea’s Strategic Path Amid U.S.-China Competition

Payne Distinguished Fellow Examines South Korea’s Strategic Path Amid U.S.-China Competition

Ambassador Jung-Seung Shin, the Winter 2023 Payne Distinguished Fellow, offered insights into the dynamics of the trilateral U.S.-China-South Korea relationship, the impacts of the great power competition between the United States and China on South Korea, and the prospects for enhanced Korea-U.S. collaboration.
Gi-Wook Shin, Amb. Jung-Seung Shin, and Oriana Skylar Mastro at the Winter Payne Lecture (L to R) Gi-Wook Shin, Ambassador Jung-Seung Shin, Oriana Skylar Mastro. Mike Breger

On April 26, 2023, in recognition of the 70th anniversary of the U.S.-Korea alliance, President Joe Biden will host President Yoon Suk Yeol for a State Visit to the United States. According to Ambassador Jung-Seung Shin, the fact that Yoon received the second such invitation of the Biden administration is a testimony to the centrality of the Korea-U.S. alliance to the peace and stability of the East Asian regions, especially at a time when the frayed U.S.-China relationship continues to degrade into a new Cold War, with a potential Taiwan contingency looming on the horizon. 

Shin, former South Korea's ambassador to China and former director general of the Asia Pacific Affairs Bureau at the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is the Winter 2023 Payne Distinguished Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and a visiting scholar at APARC. He headlined this quarter’s Payne Lecture, speaking to an audience that gathered on March 1 for a timely discussion titled Sino-U.S. Relations and South Korea, co-hosted by APARC and FSI.

The Payne Lectureship at FSI, named for Frank E. Payne and Arthur W. Payne, aims to raise public understanding of the complex policy issues facing the global community and advance international cooperation. The lectureship brings to Stanford internationally esteemed leaders from academia and the policy world who combine visionary thinking and a broad, practical grasp of their fields with the capacity to provide insights into pressing challenges of global concern. Throughout the 2022-23 academic year, the Payne Lectureship hosts experts from Asia who examine crucial questions in U.S.-China relations.

Ambassador Shin is uniquely qualified to offer insight into South Korea's response to the pressures created by the U.S.-China rivalry, said APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin, who chaired the event that included a discussion with Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military and Asia security.

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The strategic distrust and intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China have put substantial pressure on South Korea, and South Korea's long-term policy to make a Korea-U.S. alliance compatible with its partnership with China is becoming more difficult.
Ambassador Jung-Seung Shin
Winter 2023 Payne Distinguished Fellow

China’s Dreams

Painting a picture of Chinese ambitions, Ambassador Shin enumerated China’s goals and the steps it has taken to achieve them. “The Chinese dream,” he said, “is to regain the colonial behavior of the Qing Dynasty, when China was a great power with about one-third of the global GDP.” To achieve this dream, China's leaders have pushed for its continued economic development while arousing patriotism and nationalism domestically. Through its military modernization campaign, China has rapidly shown its ambition to become the top-rated global military power by 2049, the centennial of the establishment of the People's Republic of China, he noted.

Ambassador Shin indicated that China has prepared for a long-term competition with the U.S. in the economic arena, as Xi Jinping introduced the dual circulation economic policy, which aims to reorient the country's economy by prioritizing domestic consumption while remaining open to international trade and investment. This policy, Shin argues, “is designed, in part, to make the [Chinese] economy less affected by external factors including the supply chain reset of the U.S.” As such, China has stressed the importance of innovation and has made massive investments in science and technology to reduce its reliance on Western economies. Moreover, China has promoted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand its political and economic influence.

“China became the second largest economic power and began to show assertiveness in its foreign policy, particularly by emphasizing the safeguarding of Chinese interests, namely, sovereignty and territorial integrity, state security and development interest,” stated Shin. To achieve these goals, “Chinese diplomats have voiced their arguments in an abrasive style, ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ as it is called by Westerners.” This form of proactive engagement with the rest of the world has resulted in an intensifying strategic competition between the U.S. and China, which has made it increasingly difficult for South Korea to maintain simultaneous ties with both great powers.

No Longer on the Fence

Shin noted that “The strategic distrust and intensifying rivalry between the U.S. and China have put substantial pressure on South Korea…and South Korea's long-term policy to make a Korea-U.S. alliance compatible with its partnership with China is becoming more difficult.” In recent years, South Korea has moved even closer to the U.S.

The joint communique issued when President Moon Jae-in visited Washington two years ago, already showed South Korea’s tilt toward the U.S. At the time, heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula by the North Korean nuclear and missile provocation necessitated the alliance. Now, an ascendant China, “together with the lessons of Ukraine, have made South Korean people pay close attention to the importance of the Korea-U.S. alliance,” stated Shin, noting that both nations openly stress the importance of freedom, democracy, and rule-based order. South Korea has become enthusiastic about tripartite cooperation among South Korea, the U.S., and Japan, in tune with American policies. 

On the other hand, China warned South Korea to respect China's core interests while expressing its concerns on several strategic issues. Shin stated that “China began to demand the Yoon government to continue the three policy positions of the previous government, namely, no more deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), no participation in the American missile defense system, and no military alliance among Korea, Japan, and the U.S.” However, the current Foreign Minister Park Jin made it clear to the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang that the policy positions of the previous government do not bind the new government, Shin indicated.

The Taiwan Contingency

China also demands that South Korea not interfere in the Taiwan issue, arguing that Taiwan is a part of China, and the Taiwan Strait is part of China's internal affairs. When the joint communique after the moon-Biden summit two years ago touched on the Taiwan Strait for the first time, “the Chinese spokesperson warned South Korea not to play with fire,” said Shin. The Taiwan Strait is also regarded as an important sea transportation lane for South Korean goods and energy supply. “It is in South Korea's interest to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait,” he said.
Amb. Jung-Seung Shin at the Payne Lecture
Ambassador Jung-Seung Shin, the Winter 2023 Payne Distinguished Fellow, offers his insights into the dynamics of the trilateral U.S.-China-South Korea relationship.

Shin indicated the precarious nature of the contingency, stating, “South Korea has no intention of challenging the One China claim. However, the peace and stability of Taiwan Strait are also very important for South Korea, as the security situation of the Taiwan Strait is connected to the Korean peninsula.” Indeed, a military collision in the Taiwan Strait would be impossible to contain locally. “The U.S. and Japan are supposed to immediately help Taiwan to repel China’s military attack, and American bases are located in South Korea and Japan, including Okinawa,” he said.

Therefore, military conflict in the Taiwan Strait is likely to escalate to Northeast Asia, and a certain portion of American forces in South Korea could move to the Taiwan Strait in the contingency according to the strategic flexibility of forces, “which might induce North Korea's misjudgment to invade South Korea,” Shin predicted.

Looking to National Identity

According to Shin, South Korea’s foreign policies should be based on its national interests and reflect its identity and the values its people share. Therefore, South Korea should not only make efforts to further strengthen the KORUS alliance for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the region, but to properly manage its relations with China, Shin indicated. “Under these situations, the best scenario for South Korea would be that there is no strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China, but rather proactive cooperation between them…But nobody in this room thinks it's realistic,” he said.
South Korea needs to have more consistent foreign policies based on its national interest in values shared by most South Koreans, and distance itself from polarized party politics.
Ambassador Jung-Seung Shin
Winter 2023 Payne Distinguished Fellow
Recognizing the difficulty in crafting a unified front in a time of deep political divides, Shin argued that “South Korea needs to have more consistent foreign policies based on its national interest in values shared by most South Koreans, and distance itself from polarized party politics. South Korean national interest is supposed to reflect its national identity. For example, South Korea is relatively small in the size of the land and population compared with neighboring countries.”
In addition to the geostrategic limitations of the nation, the Korean peninsula remains divided, and North Korea still holds weapons of mass destruction, representing a continual existential threat. “South Korea has been faced with constant challenges in the security and economic environments, yet the most important thing among others is that South Korea should further enhance its economic strengths, technological progress, and cultural power. South Korea is a democratic country with a market economy and it has been developed to the level of the Western countries, so there is a growing demand for more contribution to regional and global issues, particularly with human security in mind,” Shin stated.
However, Shin believes South Korea’s aims should not solely be limited to growth and alignment with the U.S., arguing that “Relations with China should be properly managed. China's cooperation is also needed for eventual peace and stability on the Korean peninsula…China is still the place with a considerable potential for South Korean trade and investment.”

The Cost of Deterrence

In her comments, Oriana Skylar Mastro agreed with Shin’s proposals and went on to suggest that it is in the best interest of all countries in the region to work together to try to enhance deterrence. In Mastro’s view, China is much more fearful of horizontal escalation, the involvement of other countries, than they are of vertical escalation, or increased violence with the U.S. While the South Korean role might not be a direct involvement, or fighting China, freeing up U.S. resources, or supporting the U.S. in more defensive or indirect roles could significantly tilt the balance such that China decides the use of force is not in its best interests.
Mastro described an ideal situation in which the U.S. and South Korea work together to enhance deterrence to the region, noting that “Deterrence is very costly, and it's very risky business for all the reasons that the professor laid out about the economic costs and peacetime potential downsides geopolitically of upsetting China or presenting a greater threat to China. But my own view is that while deterrence is difficult and costly, obviously war is even worse.”
Proceeding to examine the nature of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, Mastro proposed a broadening of the public conception of how alliances can work, stating that, “I like to think about how the two countries can work together to enhance South Korea's independent capacity and military capacity and ways that the U.S. and South Korea can fight together that aren't offensive in orientation.” Yet, the North Korea contingency remains an important and dangerous prospect. Mastro identified the persistent threat on South Korea’s border, stating that, “If U.S. forces get pulled off the peninsula, that could undermine deterrence vis-a-vis North Korea.”

Preventing Overextension

Overextension represents one of the largest limits on U.S. power projection. According to Mastro, one of the primary reasons that the Biden administration has not been talking about North Korea significantly, is the fact that the U.S. cannot fight a war on the Korean Peninsula and compete effectively with China.

The question is whether the U.S. could count on South Korea for some critical supplies during a conflict that could reduce the U.S. logistical burden.
Oriana Skylar Mastro
Center Fellow

Thus, Mastro proposes that the South Koreans play a greater role in their defense, a topic that comes up with NATO partners and allies in Europe as well. More specifically, Mastro suggests that the U.S. transfer operational command to South Korean forces, and that the South Korean military should allow the U.S. to practice greater strategic flexibility, to use its forces on the Korean Peninsula for operations or contingencies that are off the peninsula. Up until this point, that permission has been denied, but Mastro contends that it would be useful and could enhance deterrence. 

“If the South Koreans, along with their statements about wanting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, also explicitly allowed for that strategic flexibility to take place to say that they understand that the role of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula is primarily to deter and defend South Korea against North Korea, that could also play a potential role in wider contingencies,” she said.

Furthermore, Mastro believes that South Korea must play a greater role in the production and provision of certain types of munitions. “This is an area where the U.S. has struggled with its own manufacturing base that is considering licensing production and potentially doing it elsewhere. So the question is whether the U.S. could count on South Korea for some critical supplies during a conflict that could reduce the U.S. logistical burden,” she speculated.

South Korea is a small country, and it has limited resources, but it also has the second-largest reserve force and paramilitary force in the world, and the eighth-largest active duty force in the world. According to Mastro, “The South Korean military is technically 20 times larger than that of Japan's…it has punched above its own weight, like the Australian military has.”

It remains to be seen whether the U.S.-South Korea alliance will need to be tested in the coming years, but tensions with China will likely continue to define the two nation’s foreign policies. A potential Taiwan contingency remains one of the largest looming threats to the status quo and the most probable pathway to regional escalation, which, in Shin’s view, could draw North Korea and its nuclear arsenal into the fold.

The Payne Lectureship will return in the spring quarter, continuing with the theme of Asian perspectives on the U.S.-China relationship. We will be joined by Kokubun Ryosei, professor emeritus at Keio University and adjunct adviser at the Fujitsu Future Studies Center.

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