Recalibrating the Rebalance: A View from South Korea

Akin to other key Asian powers that have a long-standing alliance with the United States, South Korea has welcomed America’s renewed attention to Asia although this is hardly surprising given historically high positive perceptions of the United States and the ROK-US alliance. According to a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in December 2014 on a review of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia that was first announced in November 2011, 92 percent of South Korea’s “strategic elites” supported the rebalance compared to 92 percent in Japan, 81 percent in Australia, 82 percent in India, 87 percent in Indonesia, and 96 percent in Singapore. From a South Korean perspective, the US rebalance is an important symbolic manifestation of America’s commitment to Asian security and defense, particularly as Seoul’s overriding security concern continues to be focused on jointly responding to a growing array of military threats from North Korea, including its increasing nuclear arsenal.

More importantly, while South Korea is not nearly as vocal as Japan in expressing concern over China’s increasing military capabilities and growing military footprints in East Asia, Seoul also perceives the US rebalance as another security safeguard vis-à-vis a much more vibrant and potentially more volatile Northeast Asian geopolitical balance, understanding that its alliance with the United States serves as leverage in the context of the Korean-Chinese relationship, particularly as China’s capabilities continues to expand second only to those of the United States. Indeed, one of the key consequences stemming from China’s accelerated rise is the fact that it has spurred the strategically consequential countries of Asia to take stock of what leverages they actually have and can utilize, such as their own intrinsic capabilities, advantages flowing from multinational coalitions or even sub-regional groupings, a security partnership with other like-minded Asian states, and, above all for certain countries, an existing military alliance with the United States.

South Korea’s perception of the rebalance is also shaped by three broad issues with contrasting political and policy ramifications. First, South Korean foreign policy is going to become increasingly dominated by how adroitly it traverses between the United States and China, given its all-important military alliance with the former and increasingly commensurate economic and political ties with the latter. In essence, South Korea’s “China factor dilemma” is arguably going to emerge as the single most important variable in its strategic choices, given its proximity to China and the sheer magnitude of China’s presence in and around the Korean Peninsula, including sustained Chinese support for North Korea. As the Financial Times commented recently, “Seoul knows it will need the cooperation of both Beijing and Washington if it is eventually to achieve reunification with North…[and] as South Korean officials grit their teeth to insist that there is no conflict between these two vital relationships, one has little sense that they are enjoying the latest clash of the whales.”

Second, there is a need to assess the US rebalance as an integral component of the broader strategic narrative that affects virtually all of the world’s major stakeholders, i.e., whether the United States will be able to maintain its military presence in Asia (as well as Europe) and over the longer-term, the overarching ability of the United States in modifying, modernizing, and maintaining the current security and economic architecture that will enable it to maintain critical influences into mid-century. Third, is the issue how the rebalance may be perceived over the next several years in the aftermath of key political developments in South Korea, such as the April 2016 National Assembly elections and the more important December 2017 presidential election. Moreover, even though a majority of the South Korean public supports the ROK-US alliance, there remains a deep strand of strategic independence and an abiding need to pursue a more equidistant policy between the United States and China. Understanding these undercurrents is as important as understanding key strategic imperatives and ensuing benefits from maintaining the Korean-American alliance.

Thus, how South Korea perceives the US rebalance should be seen in a wide-ranging context that takes into account growing pressures from China to pursue a more equidistant policy between Washington and Beijing, which Seoul has so far refused to do, in addition to legitimate concerns over whether the United States will be able to back up its policy shifts with matching budgetary resources even when the Obama administration has put into place a gradual reduction in the US defense budget. Domestic political currents in South Korea cannot but affect how Seoul manages its alliance despite the fact that the alliance currently enjoys wide-ranging public support. Each of these issues is assessed in greater detail below beginning with, arguably, the most important development in South Korea’s foreign and security policy paradigm since the end of the Cold War: the growing need for Seoul to balance its ties between the United States and China.

Seoul between Washington and Beijing

Similar to other countries that enjoy critical ties with both the United States and China, South Korea is becoming increasingly conscious of and affected by contrasting pressures from the two. Poised as it is at the epicenter of Northeast Asia with the closest of relations with the United States and China, Seoul’s emerging strategic dilemma is arguably going to be more pronounced than any other country in Asia for three key reasons. To begin with, while other countries are also linked in alliances with the United States with critical economic ties with China, including key NATO members such as Great Britain, France, and Germany in Europe and Japan and Australia in the Asia-Pacific, South Korea is exceptional in that it also has deep geopolitical interests with China due to Beijing’s ongoing support for North Korea and the potential influence China is likely to exercise on the road towards South-North unification. To be sure, Japan is also acutely aware of China’s growing military capabilities and footprints in the region as evinced by China’s increasingly provocative military probes to the point that “the high-velocity encounters over the East China Sea have made the skies above these strategic waters some of the tensest in the region, unnerving Pentagon planners concerned that a slip-up could cause a war with the potential to drag in the United States.” Nevertheless, South Korea’s geopolitical posture is unique in that the peninsula symbolizes the divide between continental and maritime Asia, is home to the world’s last remaining Cold War frontier along the 38 parallel, and also is a critical frontline in the emerging US-China military competition.

Although virtually every major strategically consequential power in Asia, including India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, is also grappling with the pronounced difficulties in pursuing hybrid responses to China’s rise or the amalgamation of accommodation, contestation, and hedging policies, the Korean Peninsula is the most likely arena where a major political-military crisis is likely to transpire, such as regime and government collapse in North Korea. In such a context, the very fabric of the US-China relationship is going to be tested, perhaps severely. In more ways than one, the Korean Peninsula is where the “rubber meets the road” between the United States and China with South Korea at the epicenter. From active crisis management to situation-specific scenarios that could involve active military responses on the part of the United States and China, the outbreak of a major contingency originating in North Korea would have immense political, military, and even economic implications for the United States, South Korea, and China.

Even without the outbreak of a major crisis, however, South Korea has to cope with managing relations with four of the world’s leading major powers with key strategic interests in Asia, i.e., the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. In addition, it is challenged by other ongoing issues such as coping with and responding to North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities, fine-tuning economic strategies such as joining the AIIB and signing the Korea-China FTA while simultaneously negotiating TPP, and maintaining robust US-Korea-Japan trilateral security cooperation even in the midst of deep historical fissures in the Korean-Japanese relationship and intensifying military competition between Japan and China. Its overarching security and economic policies are already being shaped by navigating the progressively choppy waters between the United States and China, as the Chosun Ilbo editorialized recently.

With respect to South Korea’s decision to join the AIIB right before the deadline, [Foreign] Minister Yun said that “this decision to join the AIIB has received a positive response from all of the vested parties as the most optimally timed response that also maximized South Korea’s national interest.” But in reality, South Korea’s decision is actually closer to getting on the bandwagon at the very last minute after prolonged hedging between the United States and China and only after Britain and other European powers opted to join. This is why economic specialists assert that South Korea didn’t prepare fully to enhance its voice vis-à-vis the AIIB. And yet Minister Yun self-proclaims that “the AIIB decision is a primary example of our exemplary diplomacy in resolving a highly challenging issue.”

Such a turn of events has also triggered what Scott Snyder calls Seoul’s emerging debate on the pros and cons of internal balancing or the degree to which South Korea should pursue homegrown military capabilities versus continuing to rely on external balancing or relying on procurement or supply capabilities through its alliance with the United States. He argues that what Seoul needs is to find an optimal mix that “enables development of indigenous capabilities without coming at the expense of the alliance” and why China’s incessant pressure on South Korea not to deploy the THAAD system may actually have had the opposite of Beijing’s intended effect.

China’s objection to the placement of THAAD capabilities on the peninsula will ring hollow as long as North Korea continues to test and develop missile capabilities that could overwhelm or compromise South Korea’s existing missile defenses. Instead, China’s objections highlight a gap between China’s characterization of alliances as Cold War relics and the US position that its alliances are vital as both an important contributor to US power and as a logical starting point for the US rebalance. The alliance will likely face larger challenges ahead to the extent that China contests it; however, its objections may ultimately serve as a compelling rationale for why broadened alliance cooperation should be sustained.

How Real is the Pivot to Asia?

The big strategic debate of the 2010s and into the 2020s is going to focus on how long the United States is going to remain the world’s preponderant power. The increasingly prevalent conventional wisdom seems to be “until such time that China manages to catch up with the United States.” Britain’s announcement on March 12, 2015 that it was going to join the China-initiated AIIB was quickly followed by other stalwart US allies, including Germany, France, and Italy. Shortly thereafter, two of America’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific—South Korea and Australia—announced that they too were signing up, despite the fact that the United States clearly preferred that its key allies not join the AIIB. Even Taiwan opted to join the AIIB on March 31, 2015 by agreeing to Beijing’s condition that Taipei should only apply for membership through its Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) in order to maintain the “one China” principle. For its part, the Abe government has so far opted not to join the AIIB since it has the potential for weakening the ADB, which is dominated by Japan and strategic allies of the United States, and Tokyo continues to insist that governance and transparency issues prevent it from attaining membership. However, it continues to send mixed signals on the AIIB issue since its ambassador to China Kitera Masato told the Financial Times that “he agreed with Japanese business leaders’ belief that the country would sign up to the China-led development bank by June.”

The AIIB is unlikely to provide a significant economic boost to the British economy or, for that matter, even to countries that are next door to China such as Japan, but the “point is that the United Kingdom is willing to take a very modest improvement in economic and political ties with China in exchange for a small deterioration in ties with the United States. Pretty much every country has decided that this is the right move.” Many would assert that the rise of the AIIB is a harbinger of a pronounced shift in the world economic order and, specifically, the beginning of the end of America’s global economic hegemony. Moreover, in an increasingly fractured world, US power no longer appears to be coterminous with near-automatic influence as it was when it stood triumphant following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the peaceful implosion of the Warsaw Pact.

Such a prognosis, or variations thereof, have been increasingly in vogue over the past decade with the following core assumptions. First, even though the United States is going to remain the world’s most powerful country into the foreseeable future, e.g., the 2030s to 2040s, its relative capabilities have been in decline and are not likely to be reversed. Second, the structure of the international system has changed profoundly since the end of the Cold War and 9/11. China’s rapid ascent is the most visible aspect of such structural change but certainly not the only one. Although the EU and the United States remain the world’s largest economies, the international economic system is no longer dominated by intrinsically Western norms and institutions. Russian resurgence and the fraying of the traditional order in the Middle East have also resulted in the weakening of US influence.

Third, the security architecture that was created and led by the United States since 1945 remains outwardly, intact but the raison d’etre for maintaining the web of bilateral alliances in the Asia-Pacific is no longer as valid as it was during the Cold War since China is a manifestly different adversary than the former Soviet Union, e.g., the fact that China provides critical economic incentives as a global economic power and the fact that virtually every single American ally or strategic partner of the United States in Asia trades more with China than the United States. Finally, the military advantage currently enjoyed by the United States is going to be progressively diminished owing to the narrowing technological gap between it and China and the latter’s determination to strengthen and augment its power projection capabilities in its “near-abroad”; while the PLA may never have the global reach of the US military, as long as the PLA is able to constrain or deny more intrusive US forays in the region, China will be able to forge an increasingly credible defense posture against the United States and its major Asian allies. The real question is whether the US rebalance in conjunction with the sustainability of American political leadership and matching financial prowess can actually mitigate or even prevent the assumptions noted above.

In September 2014, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work remarked during a presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations that by 2020, 60 percent of US air and naval assets will be based in the Asia-Pacific region with the newest equipment such as the F-35 combat aircraft and Zumwalt-class destroyers. Work argued that “the rebalance is occurring but its effects are somewhat diluted by an even larger global shift within the US defense force—after Afghanistan and Iraq, a smaller emphasis on forward-deployed forces and a larger one on reconstitution of US surge-force capabilities.” As an Australian analyst noted in relation to Wonk’s remarks, while the rebalance exists and there are tangible signs of progress, “the rebalance, even if successful, is merely one variable in a shifting strategic landscape. By itself, it won’t return the US to the position of the ‘indispensable player’ in Asia. Still, its principal value lies in the fact that the policy strengthens Washington’s ties to Asia.”

In a major study published by the CSIS in January 2015 entitled Pivot 2.0, recommendations for the remaining two years of the Obama administration included: 1) to ensure public and congressional support for TPP passage and the requisite trade promotion authority (TPA) by the summer of 2015; (2) to implement recently concluded US-China CBMs and move towards a win-win approach on the AIIB; 3) to produce an “East Asia Strategy Report” that clarifies the goals of the rebalance, funds military construction to realign US forces in the Pacific and pass a non-binding bill that sets defense spending above sequestration caps; 4) to enhance the ROK’s capabilities to deter and defend against ballistic missiles and cyber-attacks and work to improve ROK-Japan relations; and 5) to enhance a new defense framework agreement with India that provides new guidelines and to strengthen trade and defense ties with India.

From a South Korean perspective, the most important element of the US rebalance lies in maintaining a robust military alliance with the United States and ensuring that there is bipartisan support for maintaining the alliance in the Congress. Indeed, one of the most significant developments that has received little attention is the depth of Congressional support and bipartisanship that continues to guide congressional approaches to key issues in the alliance. Even with the looming US presidential election in November 2016, bilateral ties between South Korea and the United States are not likely to undergo fundamental change—one of the key barometers of a stable and predictable alliance. As assessed in greater detail below, there has been a significant deepening of South Korean support for the alliance over the past decade and even the opposition party is putting into place a more centrist defense policy posture as it tries to rebrand itself going into the National Assembly and presidential elections. But the real litmus test on the institutionalization of bipartisan support for a robust ROK-US alliance will emerge if the opposition wins the December 2017 presidential election and if that new government continues to pursue alliance-related policies that do not deviate significantly from the policies that are being implemented today. Akin to government changes in traditional US allies, such as Britain, Canada, and Australia where domestic power transitions have very little bearing on their ties with the United States (and vice versa), the ROK-US alliance also appears to be heading in that direction, although much depends on whether the opposition party can rebrand itself and usher in more centrist foreign policies.

Domestic Politics and South Korean Foreign Policy

Since democratization began in earnest in 1987, domestic politics have become a major factor in shaping the contours of South Korean foreign and security policies, including Seoul’s policies towards the major powers as well as Pyongyang. South Korean public opinion has shifted considerably over the past decade, given that in a Pew Global Poll taken in 2002 only 52 percent of South Koreans had a positive view of the United States following 9/11 and, in particular, following massive protests after the accidental deaths of two middle school girls by a US military vehicle. In a 2013 Pew poll, 78 percent of South Koreans responded favorably, registering the highest positive ranking for the United States worldwide. In a spring 2014 Pew poll on global attitudes towards the United States in 44 nations, 82 percent of South Koreans had positive views of the United States compared to only 17 percent with negative views or the third highest ranking of positive attitudes towards the United States. (The Philippines came in first with 92 percent, followed by Israel with 84 percent). Opinion surveys only offer snapshots of moving targets, but these data suggest strongly that there is a growing consensus within South Korea that supports an active US global role. As important as these numbers are, for a country that continues to host some 28,000 US forces and a bi-national defense posture through the Combined Forces Command (CFC), public sentiments can shift rapidly depending on the issue, including the deeply-rooted feeling in South Korea that oscillates between pulling back from the United States if the public feels that the ROK is too aligned given that this could entangle it in out-of-area operations or, conversely, the fear of abandonment or marginalization in the event that the United States tries to scale back its commitment to Asia in general, and more specifically, to South Korean defense. In essence, even though there is wide-ranging public support for the United States and the ROK-US alliance, by no means should one assume that such trends would be maintained.

Although it is far too early to tell how the April 2016 parliamentary election will actually turn out, it will be a major political victory for the Park administration if the ruling Saenuri Party can retain its majority in the National Assembly. While the party currently holds a comfortable majority with 157 out 300 seats, it is going to be an uphill struggle to maintain a majority given that the election is going to be touted as a mid-term assessment of Park’s five-year term and, much more importantly, as a key bellwether for the all-important December 2017 presidential contest. Conversely, if the ruling party manages to retain its majority in the National Assembly, it will enter the presidential campaign with more political clout although even a parliamentary victory in no way guarantees victory in the presidential election. If, on the contrary, the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) actually were to win a majority or significantly larger number than the 133 seats it currently controls, the election would be perceived as a major loss for the ruling party. Winning in April 2016, however, may well be a double-edged sword for the NPAD.

Internally, the party will have to decide whether the ongoing effort by party president Moon Jae-in (who was its presidential candidate in 2012 and also served as President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff) to move the party rightward on key economic and security issues can be sustained. A reason why Moon is trying to move the NPAD to the right is its poor performance in the July 30, 2014 by-elections, when the then NPAD leadership decided to mount a campaign that focused almost exclusively on castigating the Saenuri Party and the Park administration rather than offering viable policy platforms and credible candidates. In a series of new policy initiatives designed to rebrand the NPAD as a party that is able to govern effectively and to also implement dependable foreign and security policies, Moon stated recently that “whether one becomes a reliable economic party and a security party is not a question of becoming more progressive or conservative but having the capabilities that give it credibility in becoming the ruling party.” Moon also criticized the ruling Saenuri Party for allowing defense spending to actually decline under its watch, whereas the Roh Moo-hyun government increased defense spending by 8.8 percent, but it fell to one-half that level during the Lee Myung-bak administration.

The NPAD was only exploiting what was then widely perceived as a losing game for the ruling party, given the massive political and social outcry stemming from the April 16, 2014 sinking of the Saewol ferry that resulted in the deaths of 304 passengers, including 205 high school students. The government’s initial emergency response was poorly coordinated and executed, which aroused a major public outcry. On top of what many believed to be a tepid economy, there was a virtually uniform consensus that the July 2014 by-elections were going to result in a major defeat for the Saenuri Party. However, the actual results were completely unexpected in the largest-ever by-elections with a total of 15 parliamentary seats contested nation-wide. The Saenuri Party won 11 seats, and the NPAD was confronted with its third consecutive electoral defeat. Kim Han-gil and Ahn Chul-soo resigned as co-leaders, which paved the way for Moon to run as party president. But even as the NPAD pondered how to rebrand itself for the April 2016 general elections, entrenched strife between the party’s two contending ideological factions was bubbling to the surface, i.e., a bitter rivalry between the smaller but much more strident left wing and a larger but less effective liberal wing.

The outcome of the April 2016 National Assembly elections is, therefore, likely to hinge on whether the NPAD can successfully rebrand itself as a more trustworthy party on economic and security policies to attract key supporters of the Saenuri Party, but if the Saenuri Party is able to emerge successfully such a turn of events would usher in a bitter ideological struggle between the two dominant factions in the NAPD. The left wing will argue that Moon’s rightward shift strategy failed to attract supporters and that the only way to win back the Blue House in December 2017 is to radically differentiate the NAPD from the Saenuri Party. Conversely, a major NAPD victory in the April 2016 National Assembly election will be seen as a thumbs-up for Moon Jae-in’s rightward shift which will propel him as the most credible presidential candidate going into the December 2017 presidential election. Yet even under such circumstances, the ideological rift within the NAPD is unlikely to remain dormant since even the “moderate” wing of the NAPD continues to waffle on how strongly the party should support the ROK-US alliance and other key issues such as passing a bi-partisan bill to address the plight of human rights abuses in North Korea. Indeed, even as the NAPD has shifted somewhat rightward on security issues, such as accepting the fact that North Korea was behind the April 2010 sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan that resulted in the deaths of 47 ROK sailors, the party has yet to reach a consensus on how best to respond to North Korea’s growing array of nuclear weapons and deterrence-enhancing measures, such as the potential deployment of a THAAD system in South Korea.


On top of such political considerations that have a significant bearing on how the body politic chooses to perceive and respond to the US rebalance, another major issue is the extent to which the rebalance has contributed to consolidating the alliance just as it confronts an increasingly complex array of security and political challenges on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. Notwithstanding the benefits from the rebalance, such as a reaffirmation of the US defense commitment to the ROK and even grudging bipartisan support for the alliance in South Korea, balancing Seoul’s core interests between the United States and China is going to require much greater diplomatic finesse, political acumen, and strategic clarity that will leave its mark on the emerging ROK-US relationship. For example, although South Korea continues to insist that no decision has been made on whether to deploy a THAAD system by the USFK, China has been vociferously against any THAAD deployment since it insists that a THAAD system in South Korea is actually targeted against China and that it would degrade China’s strategic capabilities. While the South Korean government recently rebutted China’s increasingly obstinate political intervention over the THAAD issue, the fact remains that the Ministry of National Defense’s so-called “strategic ambiguity” stance on the THAAD issue only complicated and obfuscated South Korea’s core position.

Although the next US administration will continue to fine-tune the rebalance with strong bipartisan support for sustained engagement in Asia with requisite US forces and power projection capabilities, the real barometer of America’s rebalance is going to rest in the availability of US defense resources including budgetary commitments. In this respect, the signing of a five-year Special Measures Agreement (SMA) in January 2014 covering defense cost-sharing arrangements between the United States and South Korea was one step forward in alleviating budgetary pressures in the United States. Through this agreement, the ROK provided USD 866 million to support labor, logistics, and construction to the USFK. In the end, even with the expanding scope of South Korea’s foreign and security policies with specific reference to the growing need to calibrate its ties with both the United States and China, South Korea’s ability as a reliable partner as the US rebalance continues to unfold is unlikely to change. This is perhaps the most sobering and welcoming by-product of the alliance.