The United States and China seem to be increasingly heading for a new Cold War. It will not be a repeat of Washington’s drama with the Soviet Union: no one can imagine the complete decoupling of two economies so closely intertwined today. Suspicion, hostility and conflict, however, increasingly appear to be the main measures of Sino-US relations.
What about governments that are in between the two giants? The ancient Korean kingdom long considered itself a shrimp among the whales – the empires of Japan, Russia and China. Koreans suffered greatly when the former defeated the latter and turned the peninsula into a colony. More than a shrimp, however, today’s South Korea is under increasing pressure from two mega-whales, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States, to choose between them.
During the Cold War, there was no choice. North Korea was supported by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the PRC. South Korea received support from the United States and (a little less enthusiastically) Japan. “Cross recognition” between the different parties was suggested to ease regional tensions. The end of the Cold War led to the Russian recognition of the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1990 and the Chinese recognition two years later. However, no similar Allied move towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was made.
While Beijing and Washington clearly differed in their perspectives on the north, they were both opposed to the DPRK’s nuclear program. Pyongyang’s relationship with China was cold, a matter of practical politics rather than fiery ideology. Moreover, China was as much a lover of the South as the latter was of China. With its focus on economics, Beijing was determined to establish an economic relationship with the ROK; the latter saw China as a force for moderation in dealing with North Korea.
Despite the Tiananmen Square massacre, Sino-US relations remained strong. Chinese political ambitions remained modest, so there were few serious conflicts between the two governments. If Seoul had been asked to choose, it would have chosen America, which was more important for both security and economic reasons.
The international environment has changed drastically since then. The relationship between the US and China has deteriorated dramatically over the past decade, and especially in recent years. Beijing typically operates without allies, but is increasingly willing to punish governments that pursue policies it sees as hostile to the PRC. The United States is urging its allies and friends, even those far beyond Asia, to join an anti-Chinese coalition.
In 2017, Beijing essentially launched an economic war against South Korea for allowing the deployment of the US THAAD missile defense system. Washington urged Seoul to publicly criticize the Xi government for effectively banning political opposition and freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Most recently, the ROK tried to say enough about Taiwan to appease Washington, but not so much to upset Beijing — unsuccessfully in the latter case.
Maintaining both great balances of power without giving offense will become increasingly difficult for Seoul. Struggle and military confrontation increasingly dominate US-China relations. As Taiwan comes to the fore, other countries will have a harder time remaining neutral.
Unfortunately for South Korea, an alliance that doesn’t align with Washington’s priorities isn’t all that important to the United States. Randall G. Schriver, a Trump Pentagon official now at the Project 2049 Institute, chided the ROK last week: “You can’t have an alliance where one side sees something as the main key challenge, the organizing principle, and the other side doesn’t. “We can’t embrace that without any loss of relevance over time. And that’s the drift we’re on.”
After all, North Korea threatens America only indirectly, because of Washington’s alliance with Seoul. Yet the South is stronger than its adversary in almost every measure of power. The United States, on the other hand, is concerned about Taiwan, which is significantly weaker than China. Washington is looking for allies to take on this serious challenge — and hopes to be able to rely on the South, which has benefited so much from US support for so long.
Indeed, that points to an even greater threat to the alliance: public opinion. While the Mutual Defense Treaty does not require South Korea to participate in a conflict over Taiwan, a decision by the ROK not to participate in such a war would increase popular support for the United States’ guarantee against North Korea. undermine. Why would Americans defend South Koreans in favor of South Koreans if South Koreans do not want to fight Americans in favor of Americans?
South Koreans aren’t the only ones who only want to fight when it’s in their best interest. The Europeans are shameless freeriders. They don’t want to act on behalf of each other, let alone for America. Last year, for example, the Pew Research Center found that only a third of Germans preferred defending European allies. Still, the first assumes that the American cavalry, so to speak, will rush to rescue them if necessary. Washington needs a better set of allies.
Indeed, the ROK will also be at increased risk as Japan moves closer to America and against China. While nothing is certain in wartime, leading figures in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party are pushing to increase military spending and join the United States against the PRC in a conflict over Taiwan. The American public would not easily forget the contrast between a Japanese government that supports America and a South Korean government that refuses.
As relations between the United States and the PRC deteriorate, more countries are likely to get caught in the middle. The South Korean “shrimp” will likely suffer when the American and Chinese “whales” fight. What will Seoul decide if it has to choose?
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including: Tripwire: Korea and US Foreign Policy in a Changing World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.