Opinion: South Korea’s stance on AUKUS shows 2022 will be vital year for US-Asia Pacific relations

Back on September 15, the Biden administration announced a new strategic security partnership involving the United States, Britain, and Australia.

Widely known as AUKUS, this security pact aims to strengthen defense relations between the three countries by combining military capabilities covering naval, cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other maritime spheres, as well as laying the groundwork for a stronger US military presence in Australia. 

Unsurprisingly, China and North Korea promptly synchronized their discontent over the inception of AUKUS.

A DPRK Foreign Ministry official remarked that the existence of such a security coalition constitutes “extremely undesirable and dangerous acts which will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and trigger off a chain of nuclear arms race”.

Similarly, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, accused the alliance of “severely damaging regional peace… and intensifying the arms race”. 

If looking at responses to the issue in terms of a simple divide between democratic and authoritarian camps, however, South Korea’s stance served to complicate the issue by going against the grain.  

As one of the vital security allies of the United States, South Korea stands firmly in the former camp, yet surprisingly, it appeared to position itself on the same page as the latter when it opined its stance on AUKUS and China’s assertive behaviour in the region. 

When asked about these two issues during an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations in September, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Chung Eui-yong, who was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, considered China’s assertive behaviour as natural and understandable because it was, as a nation, growing stronger economically.

Furthermore, Chung expressed a degree of curiosity about the existence of the alliance between Australia, UK and the U.S., before further asserting his hope that AUKUS would not “disturb” the peace but rather would contribute to order in the region. President Moon echoed these sentiments when he stated during a meeting with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in New York that he hoped “AUKUS will not cause any regional problems”. 

Seoul’s responses to the inception of AUKUS could be interpreted as the country’s insistence on remaining neutral in the complex area of the US-China rivalry. Indeed, the United States’ decision to choose Australia over South Korea when establishing the pact could be considered as a positive reflection on a growing security sector that affords South Korea greater independence and increased scope for neutrality.

In addition to developing and advancing its own defense industry, vehicles, weapons, aircraft, and naval vessels, South Korea has also been selling these products to its allies all over the world, including major players in South East Asia, such as Indonesia.

Given South Korea’s growing influence in the global security industry, the improvements made in its nuclear technology, and the country’s advanced shipbuilding industry, the need for greater technological reliance on the U.S. are not as profound as Australia’s. For instance, it is likely that South Korea would be able to create and develop its own nuclear-powered submarines in the future, which would benefit Korean security tremendously and lessen its dependence on the U.S.

In reality, however, Australia’s consistency in being a staunch opponent of China’s aggressive behaviour is the reason why the U.S. viewed Australia as a more loyal ally than South Korea.

Australia’s stance against China’s assertive behaviour in the region has remained steadfast despite Beijing’s growing economic bullying, as evidenced recently when China flexed its considerable muscle towards Australian wine, sugar, and seafood exports in retaliation for a mild comment attributed to Australia on the origins of the Coronavirus-19 outbreak.

Even so, South Korea still had several opportunities to be part of the pact between the U.S. and its allies, but the Moon administration has chosen to “stand neutral”. Despite Moon’s commitment to neutrality, however, Chung leaned more towards China when he disputed the term “assertive” which has been used to describe China’s aggression in the region, pointing out that China had the right to be heard on the global stage when it wanted to voice its concerns to the international community. 

Nevertheless, Seoul’s neutral stance has come at the cost of what it truly desires from the U.S., which is the transfer of nuclear submarine technology. When a U.S. official was approached during a press briefing about AUKUS in September with the question of whether it intended to share nuclear submarine technology with South Korea, the reply was that it had no intention of extending such technology to any other countries.

This comes as a blow to the South Korean military with Moon having stated during his presidential campaign in 2017 that Korea is in need of nuclear submarines. The U.S.’s stated policy on the sharing of such technology was underlined when South Korea’s former Deputy National Security Advisor, Kim Hyun-jong, allegedly traveled to the United States in October to seek assistance in obtaining nuclear fuel, only for his request to be denied.

Regardless of its own position and public commitment to neutrality, it is Seoul’s understanding of China’s displeasure towards these security initiatives which restrains it from acknowledging or participating fully in newly-established security alliances such as AUKUS and QUAD.

Apart from China’s close geographical proximity, Beijing is also South Korea’s largest and most important trading partner. Seoul has also invested heavily in China. Aware of China’s propensity for using economic boycotts whenever trading partners upset it diplomatically or politically, the current Moon administration is continuously forced to weigh up the pros and cons of its role in issues that could affect its delicate position in the balance of major powers in the region, be it China’s influence in North Korea or its contribution to the South Korean economy, or the expectations of the U.S. and its allies that Seoul will remain forthcoming in its security approach. 

For its part, the U.S. has not always proven to be a reliable ally either. Remarks made by the then President Trump during talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hinted at South Korea being asked to contribute financially to the costs of maintaining a U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. reducing the size of its forces in the region, and the U.S.’s willingness to cancel joint exercises all raised questions over the U.S.’s commitment to its ally.

The recent abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan has also further undermined trust in the U.S. and specifically its credibility as a security ally for South Korea and other like-minded countries. Further complicating the issue, U.S.’s pacifying stance on the release of Meng Wanzhou, a chief financial officer of Huawei who had been detained in Canada at the U.S.’s request on fraud charges, is contradictory to its insistence that its allies stand firm against Beijing’s power plays on the world stage. 

If the United States wants South Korea to commit fully to its camp, it first needs to navigate the quagmire of Seoul’s economic dependence on China. In return, South Korea must stand firmer against China’s acts of aggression.

The United States and other similarly-minded great powers could help South Korea in building credible middle and small powers blocs to solve the thorny question of economic dependence on China. At the same time, South Korea cannot expect the United States to share the sensitive technology that it craves until it is prepared to stand as firmly against China’s authoritarian moves as Australia consistently does.

All of this means that there will be both incredibly opportunities and plenty of minefields for the United States (and South Korea) to navigate in 2022.

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