US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo intended to meet his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha on 7 October 2020. But the visit was cancelled after US President Donald Trump contracted COVID-19. He was expected to discuss prospects of South Korea deepening its engagement with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad, consisting of the United States, India, Japan and Australia.
In recent years talk has emerged of transforming the Quad into a veritable ‘Asian NATO’ positioned to promote a ‘free and open Indo–Pacific’ against China’s rise. Such a development would be a marked contrast with the US’s traditional hub-and-spokes style of alliances in the Indo–Pacific.
Aware that Pompeo would raise the issue of the South Korea’s participation in a ‘Quad-plus’ format, Kang dismissed the idea of the country formally acceding to the Quad. Kang candidly stated that Seoul has no interest in participating in a US-led structural alliance in the Indo–Pacific.
Even in the ostensibly unlikely event that South Korea joins the Quad, such a development may ultimately be detrimental to the US’s North Korea policy. US attempts to entice South Korea into the Quad for the sake of containing China could harden Beijing’s views of the Korean Peninsula as an area critical to its attempts to ward off Washington’s geopolitical encroachment. Pushing South Korea to join the Quad could frustrate inter-Korean reconciliation by making Beijing more inclined to support a divided Korean Peninsula, reinforcing North Korea as a buffer state.
Policy discourse in South Korea has increasingly emphasised its dual position of having a primarily pro-US security orientation while being firmly connected to the Chinese economic sphere. Seoul has pursued a strategy of avoiding conflict with China by limiting its participation in Washington’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ — the Quad being an integral part of US policy.
As Seoul feels increasing pressure to join the United States in a full-fledged anti-China alliance posture, Kang’s downplaying of any real chance South Korea would join the Quad no doubt comes in part from countervailing pressure Beijing has placed on South Korea.
Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, visited South Korea’s Director of the National Security Suh Hoon on 22 August 2020. Yang stated that South Korea should ‘not stand on the US side’ and insisted that peaceful relations between China and the United States were essential for security in Northeast Asia.
For China, North Korea has a dual meaning for stability on the Korean Peninsula. It is critical for Chinese security on a peripheral level, while factoring heavily into Beijing’s power relations with Washington. South Korean accession to the Quad would only amplify North Korea’s geopolitical value for China.
At present, China may be willing to accept Korean unification under a South Korean government not fully aligned with the United States, showing that Beijing is not inextricably wedded to the existence of North Korea as an independent state. Whereas the ROK–US alliance is primarily ensconced in deterring North Korea, absorbing the southern half of the Korean Peninsula into an explicitly anti-China network would conceivably harden Beijing’s position on peaceful Korean unification.
South Korea is a democracy with values and interests that largely align with the United States, like all other Quad members. South Korea’s comparatively more vulnerable position in relation to China, and both countries’ stake on the question of North Korean security means that excessive attempts to rope Seoul into an ‘Asian NATO’ may backfire against US interests.
The official US policy position is that it supports peaceful Korean unification in such a way that the Korean people themselves are the ultimate deciders of their fate. In taking steps that may inhibit peaceful unification, Washington may lose even more of its waning trust with Seoul if it seeks to use the Korean Peninsula as a means to contain China. As China engages in increased diplomatic outreach to South Korea, the United States can ill-afford to give Seoul further doubts about its true intentions.
Washington should therefore restrain itself from pushing Seoul too hard to join the Quad as a full member, leveraging instead its shared interests with Seoul to focus foremost on seeing through an equitable solution to the Korean security crisis. South Korea’s accession to the Quad will complicate Beijing’s ties with Seoul and entrench the Korean Peninsula as an even more explicit geopolitical battleground between China and the United States.
Anthony V Rinna is a senior editor and specialist on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group.
This article first appeared at the East Asia Forum.