As South Korea bids to increase its influence in the region alongside its US ally, Beijing is warning Seoul that this approach “could turn into a nightmare” for the South Korean nation.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s foreign policy reflects his strategy of becoming a “global pivotal state” with an expanding role beyond East Asia. In this sense, his inclination to get closer to the US increases the risks of an escalation of tensions with China, several analysts warn, quoted by the South China Morning Post.
Aspirations in the Pacific region
At the end of this May, Seoul hosted the first summit between South Korea and the Pacific islands — the Cook Islands, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Niue, and Palau — where the nations signed several agreements on expanding cooperation in economic development, security, and response to climate change.
During this event, the South Korean president pledged to strengthen his “tailor-made” support for each Pacific island state and announced that would increase your attendance for the development of this region $39.9 million by 2027. Yoon also held summits with the leaders of five other Pacific island nations.
In the view of Peter Lee, a researcher at the Center for US Studies at the University of Sydney, Seoul’s growing commitment to the Pacific region reflects its desire to take on a more expansive role and realize its aspirations to become a “Global Ground State”. At the same time, he indicates that the policy of Yoon’s predecessor, Moon Jae-in, did not focus on this region.
Concept of “Global Ground State”
South Korean President Yoon first floated the idea of a “global pivotal state” in an article on the Foreign Affairs website in February last year, while he was still running for president. In this note, he called on South Korea to adopt a new foreign policy of “clarity and boldness” and accused the Moon Jae-in administration of “timidity.” In addition, he indicated that this new approach would mean strengthening cooperation with the US and Japan, while adopting a more critical stance towards China.
This June 7, the Yoon government issued its first National Security Strategy. Released for the first time in five years, the document highlighted South Korea’s vision of becoming a “global state fundamental to freedom, peace and prosperity” amid a rapidly changing international environment and threats from intensifying regional security.
Among the objectives of the strategy are those of protecting the sovereignty of South Korea, establishing peace on the Korean peninsula and laying the foundations for prosperity in East Asia. as the country’s global role expands.
This document, like the Indo-Pacific strategy released by the Yoon government in December, appears to have replaced Seoul’s previous New South Policy (NSP), announced in November 2017 and aimed at deepening its strategic partnership with Southeast Asia and India at a level similar to Seoul’s ties with the US, China, Japan and Russia.
According to the head of Korean Studies at the SK-Korea Foundation at the Brookings Institution, Andrew Yeo, the Yoon government wanted to unveil a more ambitious strategy for the entire Indo-Pacific that would go beyond the NSP and connect with the concept of Yoon of a “global ground state”.
China’s policy towards the Pacific islands
In recent years, China’s engagement with the region has intensified thanks to the expansion of economic ties. In addition, Beijing signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in 2022. In response, the US also boosted aid to the region, even opening its Embassy in Vanuatu and hosting the first summit between the US and the Solomon Islands. Pacific last year.
Andrew Yeo opines that Seoul’s recent interest in the Pacific islands is less about them “importing” to South Korea, and more that it might have been influenced by Washington’s concern about China’s growing influence in the region.
Moving away from China?
Under the previous Administration, Seoul practiced “strategic ambiguity” aimed at striking a balance between the US, its military ally, and China, its strategic economic partner. However, South Korea’s recent tilt towards the US has been increasing discontent in Beijing. Thus, after the announcement of Seoul’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific, the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, indicated that Beijing advocates solidarity and cooperation among all countries and opposes the establishment of exclusive cliques.
Then, in April, after South Korean President Yoon called the situations in the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula a “global issue,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong dismissed this statement as “remarks wrong,” according to the Chinese state daily Global Times. The paper also warned that Yoon’s “overwhelming pro-American politics could turn into a nightmare for South Korea.”
Earlier this month, following Seoul’s decision to improve relations with Washington to become a “nuclear-based alliance,” Beijing argued that deploying US nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula was a dangerous and provocative act toward China, Russia and North Korea. “Washington and Seoul will face strategic-level retaliation that could trigger another nuclear crisis in the region,” the Global Times wrote.
Last week, Seoul’s relations with China came to a head after Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming warned Seoul not to make the “wrong bet” amid the Sino-Chinese rivalry. US, adding that “those who bet on China’s defeat will definitely regret it.”
In response, Seoul issued a protest note and expressed “strong regret” over these “provocative” statements. Yoon also questioned Xing’s approach as a diplomat.