South Korea’s Middle Power Multilateral Diplomacy:1 Optimistic and Pessimistic Views

Throughout the second half of 2015, President Park Geun-hye has engaged in active summit diplomacy and tried to play the role of reconciler-in-chief. For instance, she took credit that her attendance at the September 3 military parade in Beijing brought the dividend Tokyo had sought through resumption of the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) summit. She also obtained the approval of Washington following that of other countries to promote the Korea-led Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), while giving long sought impetus to the trilateral security ties of the United States-Japan-Korea championed by Washington and combining a recent free trade agreement (FTA) with China with new energy for joining Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and talk of becoming a bridge between FTAs. The renewed CJK summit also agreed to move toward a trilateral FTA.

At the inter-Korean level, Park bolstered her credentials in late August by “winning” a military standoff with Kim Jong-un, which was triggered by a land-mine explosion that injured South Korean soldiers on August 4, and making a landmark deal on August 25 to lessen the escalated cross-border tensions. As the reunions for families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War finally resumed, optimism was palpable that an activist foreign policy under Park’s strong leadership is succeeding. In Washington, however, there has been discernible pessimism. Since Park’s inauguration in February 2013, Washington has been wary of her leaning too close to China. She and President Xi Jinping have held five summits, and Seoul has joined the Beijing-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that Washington has opposed. This article details the case for both of these assessments, pointing to reasons for different viewpoints and to factors that are likely to tip the balance in 2016-2017—the remainder of Park’s term—in one direction or the other.

South Korean optimistic thinking rests on at least five ways of viewing inter-state security dynamics in Northeast Asia. First, there is a hopeful attitude that China is a promising and generally reliable partner in dealing with North Korea, particularly Pyongyang’s military provocations, and concerns on the Korean Peninsula. This tilts policies toward engaging China rather than hedging against it. Second, there is a sense that Sino-US relations, at least in Northeast Asia, are more cooperative than competitive and can be nudged further in a cooperative direction. Third, South Koreans are optimistic about ROK-US relations, viewing the alliance as a linchpin of the US rebalance toward Asia,2 while anticipating new frontiers for it, e.g., developing the bilateral defense alliance into a comprehensive strategic alliance. Fourth, recent zeal for reunification, if not a sign of confidence that it will happen soon, means much more looking ahead toward what could be. Park’s labeling of a “unification bonanza” in early 2014 has emphasized the opportunities for peace, growth, and investment that reunification would bring about. Finally, success in launching NAPCI has emboldened many in Korea’s policy elite to anticipate a new era of regionalism focused on Northeast Asia, in which Seoul will bring countries together, however cautiously it starts.

There was little cause for optimism in Seoul’s foreign policy for four decades, but at the end of the 1980s thinking changed. Every president since Roh Tae-woo, whose significant foreign policy nordpolitik produced good results in 1990-1992, has shared far-ranging visions of diplomatic diversification and transformation in Northeast Asia or even the global arena. Park’s visions are better grounded than Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and Roh Moo-hyun’s Northeast Asian hub or great power balancer. She has proceeded carefully with North Korea, insisting on trustpolitik and making sure that no space opened between her policy and Washington’s. Yet, she has—compared to her predecessors except, perhaps, for Lee Myung-bak—faced a more challenging strategic environment. Kim Jong-un’s defiance of all of the great powers, Sino-US relations turning more negative, Vladimir Putin aggressively challenging the status quo, and Abe Shinzo giving less thought than his predecessors to meeting South Korea’s concerns are among the obstacles that could have turned the hopeful mood in Seoul to pessimism. This article discusses why it did not, while also examining US reasoning that is arousing a certain degree of pessimism.

Theoretical Explanations for Optimism

A mixture of realism, liberalism, and constructivism gives rise to optimism. Realism centers on reasoning about the common response to North Korean threats, especially China’s willingness to work with South Korea and US readiness to contain a growing threat with China. The development of the South Korea-China strategic cooperative partnership is framed in terms of realist thinking in Korea’s foreign policy. The stakes of the bilateral ties with Beijing are enormously important not only for increasing reliance on China’s economy but also for dealing with North Korean threats. While South Koreans are somewhat wary of China’s possible power transition in the region, pondering both the risk of US abandonment and the fear of entrapment in a Washington-Beijing conflict,3 the consensus is that neither balancing nor bandwagoning is an effective bilateral strategy in this era of great power rivalry, as ASEAN countries have made clear. Additional challenges await, where the US-China competition is becoming more rigorous in a context of multilateral diplomacy. Somehow, in the shadow of North Korea, South Koreans assert that middle power status, a sovereign right to the leading role in facing North Korea, and regional factors give their country a unique opportunity to steer Northeast Asia toward security architecture. Present in this logic is the notion that the US-China distrust leaves ties too problematic to find common ground on their own but not so dangerous as to block the way for a country that gains the trust of both to play a constructive role in assisting them. Realist reasoning is a big part of South Korean optimism.

The liberal argument holds that the Asian Paradox leaves open a foundation for building on ever-growing economic integration. South Korea is a big enough economic presence to throw its weight around, while also being a leader in FTAs with ties that bolster its potential to act. Its policy on FTAs underscores its role as a bridge between advanced and developing countries and ultimately the United States and China.4 As a regional hub or FTA bridge, Seoul has kept liberal thinking in favor of multilateral institution building more alive than have any of the other states active in Northeast Asia. This logic is a major factor in optimism that great powers can agree to multilateralism.

Finally, on the constructivist side, there is optimism about a middle power that holds up a vision of regionalism capable, in stages, of swaying great powers to embrace it. A middle power is the natural champion of such a vision. Overall, great powers prefer bilateral arrangements to multilateral settings, while strategies for multilateralism, through global or regional security dynamics, are generally considered useful for countries that have weaker capabilities in fulfilling their national interests. With its growing national capabilities and self-image, South Korea has identified itself as a middle power and sought various forward-looking foreign policies mainly through multilateral diplomacy, such as Park’s MIKTA diplomacy—an association of five major middle powers, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia.5 Somehow, the moral force of a country that stands outside great power balancing is perceived as having transformative potential. South Koreans are hopeful that their state can successfully align its multilateral approaches with the traditional US bilateral alliance, earning credit as a booster of shared regional ideals when the realist solutions to growing tensions in Northeast Asia prove to be woefully insufficient.

Regardless of the difficulties, South Korea is keen on finding room for autonomous foreign policy maneuvering, primarily multilateral diplomacy, continuing to develop regional cooperation frameworks as confidence-building measures among Northeast Asian countries. Looking back to Roh Tae-woo’s proposal for a six-party Consultative Conference for Northeast Asia, Kim Young-sam’s catchphrase of globalization, Kim Dae-jung’s idea of an East Asian community, Roh Moo-hyun’s Northeast Asian Cooperation Initiative, and Lee Myung-bak’s New Asia Initiative, we see a continuous pattern aimed at the institutionalization of multilateral regional cooperation. Park’s NAPCI is an important test of promoting a regional multilateral security regime by overcoming lack of trust, which originates from the US-China rivalry, the conflictual situation between China and Japan, and the strong nationalist sentiments among Northeast Asian countries. Ultimately, this optimism rests on both theoretical presumptions at odds with those prevalent in the great powers, and on perceptions of these powers and their mutual relations distinctive to South Koreans.

Perceptions of China and Its Interest in Multilateral Security

During the Cold War, China was opposed to multilateral security arrangements both regional and global. Washington-led bilateral and multilateral initiatives spawned Beijing’s anxiety, while the latter’s attempts to establish its own security architecture with the Soviet Union failed in the Sino-Soviet split. Although China became a UN Security Council member replacing Taiwan in 1971, it was unfamiliar with or suspicious about global institutions and multilateral arrangements. China remained passive, reluctant, or uncooperative in many UN affairs in the 1970s and 1980s, e.g., it strongly opposed UN peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and refused to contribute financial and human resources, emphasizing the principles of non-interference and sovereignty.

Since the early 1990s, however, China has actively engaged in, and often attempted to initiate multilateral security processes, both regionally and globally, while greatly increasing its contribution to UN PKO missions since its first presence in Cambodia in 1992. Policymakers also have sought official diplomatic relations with the European Union and NATO, as they perceived their EU counterparts trying to engage with, not contain, rising China, although their suspicions of NATO under US leadership have remained.6 China initially refused to authorize any security function for the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) created in 1994. However, it began actively to take part in ARF and seek security ties with ASEAN countries from 1996 with the release of the New Security Concept (NSC), which became a basis for engagement in regional security frameworks. The NSC was developed to counter Southeast Asian perceptions of China as a threat in the wake of its occupation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in 1995.7 Beijing began to seek partnerships on technical military matters with ASEAN countries and supported a conflict prevention mechanism within the ARF framework. China’s shift from initial suspicions of ASEAN efforts was partly driven by the country’s appreciation of ARF’s open regionalism, consensus-building, and cooperative security, and its efforts to engage China. But it was also Beijing’s strategic calculation to utilize ARF as an alternative to the US-dominated alliance structures of regional security.8 While troubles over the South China Sea have deepened, the multilateral mechanisms led by ASEAN in which China takes part continue to prove their worth and serve as an inspiration to Northeast Asia.

In 1996, China co-founded the “Shanghai Five,” which grew into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, to promote cooperation and confidence building with Central Asia and Russia.9 Despite some dire predictions, the SCO has had a stabilizing impact in Central Asia and served to boost ties between China and Russia, proving that it is a successful form of multilateralism. Looking to Central Asia as well as Southeast Asia as areas where regional institutions have a proven track record indicative of China’s willingness to work collectively, South Koreans envision a similar outcome in Northeast Asia, recalling China’s constructive role in revitalizing the Six-Party Talks to deal with North Korea’s increasingly dangerous nuclear threats.

Although the Six-Party talks have been dormant since December 2008, they enabled Northeast Asian states, which have little experience in multilateral approaches, to act on their shared willingness to collectively deal with regional security challenges. China’s intermediary role was indispensible. Despite its declining influence on North Korea under the Kim Jong-un regime, its role remains critical for resumption of the talks. Many South Koreans presume that the talks will eventually resume and China’s role will be productive in restraining North Korean belligerence and boosting multilateral ties. The warm ties between Park and Xi over three years have encouraged many to expect a cooperative mood if talks resume.

Beijing has continued to express its discontent with the existing global and regional financial institutions, which it argues are controlled by the interests of the United States, Europe, and Japan.10 Its initiatives—AIIB, the BRICS Bank, and “One Belt, One Road”—are regarded as a contribution to Asian integration and mostly welcomed by its neighbors, while Washington tried to discourage its allies from joining AIIB. However, allies, including South Korea, Australia, and the United Kingdom, did join, leading to a US diplomatic setback. South Koreans largely interpret this outcome as evidence that Washington should be less reflexive in opposing China’s leadership and participation in regionalism, giving the benefit of the doubt to China as an instrumental force that deserves to be further encouraged.

In May 2014, China’s “New Asian Security Concept (NASC)” was introduced by Xi, aiming at new regional security cooperation architecture.11 Just as the NSC sought to dampen the threat perception of Southeast Asians, the NASC sought to counter the region’s negative views on the rise of China in the midst of intensifying tensions in the South China Sea, as disputes grew more complicated with Washington blaming China’s continued expansion on the disputed islands and Beijing warning Washington “not to take any risky or provocative actions” in the region’s territorial claims.12 Beijing’s pursuit of multilateral engagement is often viewed as a carefully designed strategy both to reduce US dominance in the region and to ease smaller neighboring states’ anxieties. If it can arouse anxieties, it also can be tested, as in the dangerous setting around North Korea.

Perceptions of Sino-US Relations and Multilateralism

As China becomes more powerful, it is likely to increase multilateral engagement as an important tool for further expanding its influence in East Asia and beyond. The United States and China have been competitively advocating multilateral regional arrangements. While China prefers the ASEAN+3 structure for advancing East Asian cooperation, the United States joined the larger East Asia Summit (EAS). Increasing US interest in participating in ASEAN-led multilateral mechanisms has been largely interpreted as counterbalancing China’s rapid ascendency, using multilateral institutions as instrumental in resolving specific transnational issues and shaping China’s perceptions and influence in regard to global and regional norms and values.13

The ASEAN+3 summit led to the East Asia Vision Group (EAVG) and the East Asia Study Group (EASG) initiated by Kim Dae-jung, who espoused an East Asian goal of community building. Although China did not oppose expanding the EAS to add the United States, its inclination has been to challenge US hegemony and alliances in multilateral arrangements rather than working together to build common ground.14 Indeed, China has attempted to place ASEAN+3 at the forefront of the regional community building process while downplaying the significance of the EAS.

The US-led TPP and China-promoted Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) add to the rivalry with significant security implications. Such competing initiatives can generate regional blocs and close trade; yet Sino-US competition can strengthen institution-building processes, eventually achieving greater integration through the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). As the two pursue multilateral approaches at odds with each other, middle powers can see openings for their own diplomacy.

As for North Korean nuclear challenges, from 2003, despite some downturn in US-China relations in 2010, Washington has repeatedly recognized that it considers Beijing a constructive force and that multilateral solutions to the nuclear crisis are preferred. While differences exist on the preconditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, a foundation for multilateralism has been established. Compared to Central Asia, where Sino-US ties have been more competitive than cooperative, and Southeast Asia, where signs of competition are growing, Northeast Asia is where Beijing and Washington have the most compelling common security interest. If Pyongyang following 2008 has thwarted the chosen mechanism for pursuing it, there is still reason for cautious optimism. Yet, while Washington’s principal goal for the Six Party Talks continues to be denuclearization, Beijing’s focus on the revival of the talks is on regional security and the inter-Korean reunification process where denuclearization is one item on the agenda. In addition to the nuclear issue, there are several other North Korean challenges to which Washington must pay attention, including Pyongyang’s conventional military forces, missile programs, and gross human rights violations. Washington and Beijing are likely to compete with differing strategic priorities over these challenges. Furthermore, the severe tension between Beijing and Washington over the South China Sea has been increasingly problematic. The two giant powers are not likely to escalate their rivalry into an actual violent conflict given their deep economic interdependence and their keen awareness about the necessity of upholding traditional nuclear deterrence.15 Still, it should be noted that the US Navy tested freedom of navigation within 12 miles of an artificial Chinese island in the South China Sea. At the ASEAN Defense Meeting in November 2015, China rejected a joint statement, warning that the continued navigation patrols are “provocative acts” and could possibly lead to war.16

Perceptions of ROK-US Relations and Multilateralism

Park was most determined to increase trust with the United States. In Washington in mid-October 2015, she called the alliance a linchpin of the US rebalancing policy to the Asia-Pacific region.17 It is seen as indispensable for a credible policy toward North Korea and a “honeymoon” with China that would not be misinterpreted as bandwagoning. In each of her summits with Obama, she has showcased their close personal ties, the undiminished vitality of traditional alliance ties, and new frontiers to give more weight to the alliance. The October 16 summit, building on US respect for the handling of North Korea’s provocation in late August, saw Obama affirm that there is no South Korean tilt toward China or need for a zero-sum attitude toward its policy, and to recognize that it has space for diplomacy, including to pursue plans for NAPCI. Secure in this ever-strengthening alliance, South Koreans are further emboldened diplomatically.

As for the first trilateral summit between South Korea, Japan, and China on November 3 in more than three years, having been greatly disturbed by Tokyo’s continual failures to properly apologize for colonial atrocities, neither Seoul nor Beijing were ready to meet with Japan, but Washington wanted Seoul and Tokyo to get together in the face of an increasingly assertive China.18 The Obama administration has been satisfied with Park’s separation of security and history as seen in her response to the Abe statement in August and her agreement to meet with Abe at last. Despite troubling optics of Park standing with Xi and Putin before a parade of arms aimed at US forces, there has been no open criticism of Park’s China policy.

While concern remains that bold regional diplomacy will be out of step with US moves, the takeaway from the October summit is that Seoul now has a green light to proceed, if somewhat cautiously. In supporting NAPCI, Obama made clear that Korea’s pursuit of multilateralism is consistent with the alliance. Although Seoul has no choice but to cautiously play a “delicate balancing act” in complex strategic and security dynamics among Washington, Beijing, and Tokyo, it is clear that a comprehensive Korea-US alliance is key to reducing the country’s vulnerability to North Korean threats and escalating rivalries. Despite stronger than ever ROK-Chinese ties in trade, politics, and culture, it is not likely for China to offer South Korea a reliable security alternative.19 Therefore, pursuit of multilateral security architecture in the region needs to complement the existing bilateral security system.20

Reunification and NAPCI

Park is poised to take middle power diplomacy to the next level, more confident that no choice needs to be made between firmer security relations with an ally and greater economic interdependence and closer coordination on North Korea policy with a rising neighbor. Wary of being caught in their great power conflict, she has endeavored to adapt policy not merely to changing geopolitical conditions but also to the country’s own rising capabilities. Insistent that regional security dynamics are not determined merely by a bilateral equation registering the power and relationship of two great powers, Seoul sees interests, opportunities, and obligations to pursue middle power diplomacy. With its upward economic and diplomatic status on the international stage, it has actively identified itself as a middle power or junggyun-guk; NAPCI—the Seoul Process—is not only the latest revival, but also a part of her trustpolitik, which extends from the inter-Korean confidence-building process to the Eurasia Initiative and world-wide middle power networking.21 NAPCI is viewed through the prism of middle power aspirations to design a regional architecture—facilitating regional cooperation in non-traditional soft security areas including climate change responses, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance, which will be a stepping stone for trust building among Northeast Asian states and eventually overcoming the Asian Paradox.

Despite Park’s insistence that her initiatives and the US rebalance to Asia will create a synergy effect for regional peace and development, some warn that it will not be easy to align NAPCI with US expectations. They note tentativeness in the US response, indicating doubt about how NAPCI would fit into the rebalancing policy and whether it would inadvertently provide China with leverage to weaken the postwar liberal regional order and US alliance structures.22 China also showed its reservations about how NAPCI can be integrated into ASEAN-based regional cooperative mechanisms and perceived NAPCI as a kind of 5+1 structure as North Korea would not join. China has continuously opposed 5+1 proposals in Six-Party Talks negotiations. Unresolved historical and territorial disputes and political tensions between South Korea and Japan were also a stumbling block in promoting NAPCI.

Recently, Evan Medeiros and Kurt Campbell acknowledged NAPCI as a creative multilateral effort initiated by Seoul, which would serve as a fulcrum in Northeast Asia. Yet, Medeiros pointed out that the Park government needs to cautiously examine how NAPCI is different from the long-stalled Six-Party Talks, whether it weakens or conflicts with other existing regional security mechanism, and whether functional cooperation in non-traditional security could backfire. Campbell emphasized the importance of the US involvement in the initial stage of establishing any new regional mechanism in order to make it correspond to already-developed multilateral institutions or security networks.23

To promote NAPCI, it is important for Seoul to define a “value-added” aspect, which does not challenge current and emerging regional architecture, and, at the same time, a vision to “find common ground and interests, to engage in dialogue and trust-building rather than side-splitting, and to diminish mutual suspicion and harsh rhetoric.”24 This means defining Korea’s middle power identity. Its implementation should grasp not just the idealism to overcome the Asian Paradox but the strategic realities in which functional cooperation would not directly play a catalytic role in decreasing security dilemma in Northeast Asia. Conventional hard security-related tensions are so intense among regional powers that cooperative mechanisms to facilitate soft security issues have their clear limits. No matter how strong functional cooperation is, worsening inter-state relations over history and hard security issues oftentimes spoil the well-advanced social and economic relations.25

NAPCI needs to prove itself in promoting regional confidence building and establishing regional security architecture in Northeast Asia where the US-China rivalry, the conflicting situation between Japan and China, the Korea-Japan dispute, and abnormally strong nationalism adversely prevail. Its success will depend on whether the objectives and processes of NAPCI can be matched with US and Chinese strategic interests.

Pessimistic US Concerns

While American officials and experts viewed the Obama-Park summit as a success, it passed without any obvious deliverables or sense of new momentum. Some see that as a sign of a mature alliance steadily moving forward, but others worry that challenges are not being faced as they grow more serious. As the United States strives to forge a consensus behind prevailing norms of the international community, there is increasing doubt in Washington that Seoul is on board. In the Obama-Park Joint Statement, there was: no mention of the South China Sea or freedom of navigation; mention of Crimea, but not Russia; no indication that Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and integration into a regional missile defense system had been discussed; no reference to joint support for UN General Assembly action on North Korean human rights; and no indication that Seoul would be prepared at the CJK summit to join with Tokyo on shared security concerns regarding Beijing, such as about its declaration of an An Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. Amid high tension between the United States and China over the South China Sea, as Washington continues its freedom of navigation operations, US resolve for allied support has strengthened.

The security community in the DC area had the most reservations about what was absent in the Obama-Park summit. They took seriously Obama’s press conference mention of seeking support on freedom of navigation. “The only thing that we’re going to continue to insist on is that we want China to abide by international norms and rules.  And where they fail to do so, we expect the Republic of Korea to speak out on that.”26 DC voices are concerned that the level of information sharing between Seoul and Tokyo remains far from adequate and that trilateral exercises fall far short of some the US Navy holds with other states. Indeed, some comments go so far as to warn that China is using South Korea to undermine order in the region, while the response to China suggests disbelief in what it really is doing and seeking in regard to North Korea. The wariness about talk concerning reunification and China’s support for it as well as about the Korean approach to Japan stands in contrast to the more upbeat mood about Japan and the increasingly close alliance with it in the aftermath of Abe’s April visit to Washington. Finally, South Korea at the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting in November explicitly expressed its support for the US-proposed joint statement that includes a freedom of navigation patrol and the restraint of China’s construction of reclaimed islands and militarization in South China Sea areas. Still, it remains to be seen if this support could dispel suspicion over leaning towards China.

US pessimists rarely question the strength of the alliance, but they do show concern about its regional vitality. Prospects for NAPCI do not look favorable, when it depends on Russia, now treating the United States as a cold war enemy, and also China, which has ample opportunity to improve relations with the United States, if it so desired, without recourse to a regional institution. The realist argument in Washington views China as using North Korea in a balance of power and not focusing on it as a threat despite seeking denuclearization. The liberal argument has faded, as if multilateral institutions and economic integration have failed to increase trust. Finally, the constructivist argument is concentrated on aspects of national identity that overshadow any vision of regionalism, leaving little space for that to take hold.

The Obama-Park summit brought the pessimistic arguments more to the surface despite comments that the summit was an overall success, but they pointed to pitfalls that should be faced sooner rather than later. Hearing Korean optimism, the response is less direct disagreement than reluctant concern that excessive expectations could lead to unnecessary disappointment or even to policy choices eventually to be regretted.


The optimists find it advisable for Seoul to play an active role in reinforcing traditional Korea-US-Japan cooperation, renewing dormant Korea-China-Japan relations, and constructing Korea-US-China ties. The pursuit of such trilateral cooperative mechanisms would be accompanied by active participation in existing regional arrangements such as those led by ASEAN. NAPCI’s appeal could bolster CJK and empower its Trilateral Coordination Secretariat, which was formed in 2011 in Seoul, encouraging China and Japan to find Korea’s intermediary role useful.

There is a direct correlation between the increased interest in unification and South Korea’s outreach to China. This deepening of ties appears not to be a reaction by Seoul to its deteriorating relations with Tokyo, but rather, it is because Seoul sees a moment of weakness in Beijing’s ties to Pyongyang. Xi is not Hu or Jiang, who were accused of “rewarding bad behavior” by North Korea, and Dai Bingguo, the chief apologist for North Korea in China, is no longer in the game. China is increasingly worried that the regime in Pyongyang is spiraling downward. South Korea is trying to take advantage of this window and bring China more to its side. It wants to create greater Chinese equities in its relations with Seoul than its relations with Pyongyang. This does not mean that Seoul would be willing to cut a deal with China on North Korea that excludes the United States. China is by no means ready to abandon North Korea, and as infatuated as South Korea may be with China, its outreach to Beijing is only credible if it is grounded in a strong alliance with the United States, without which South Korea would be much less strategically attractive to China and possibly be treated like a small province. Seoul seeks to convince Washington to recognize NAPCI as a useful vehicle to confirm the continued US commitment to Northeast Asia and to maintain its staying power by strengthening economic interdependence and building military and political trust in the region.

Indeed, Korea is uniquely positioned at the crossroads of four big powers, each employing its own distinctive and assertive regional policy. Arguably, its best choice is to first seek middle power diplomacy between China and Japan in an attempt to set up a “region of equilibrium” in which China’s growing influence is balanced by the clout of neighboring Japan combined with that of the distant United States, instead of directly joining a US-led containment against China or taking a subordinate posture in a reemerging sinocentric regional order.27 Korea’s strategic choice is to continue to support community building through ASEAN+3 for institutionalizing the habit of genuine cooperation in East Asia and to harmonize the US-China conflicting strategies over East Asian multilateralism, supporting the EAS as both a complementary mechanism with ASEAN+3 and a wider mechanism for cooperation.

1.The middle power diplomacy in this study focuses on political and diplomatic efforts by the government. In the future study, the role of non-governmental actors will be additionally explored for more constructive middle power multilateral initiatives. The section on perceptions of China and its interest in multilateral security has been developed from the author’s previous work supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-2008-362-A00001). The author greatly appreciates Prof. Gilbert Rozman for his invaluable comments on the earlier draft of this study..

2.“Park reaffirms US is best ally,” The Korea Times, October 15, 2015,

3.Joseph A. Bosco, “Entrapment and Abandonment in Asia,” The National Interest, July 8, 2013.

4.Marie DuMond, “South Korea-China FTA” (presentation at the Asan China Forum, December 11, 2012).

5.MIKTA, “About MIKTA,”

6.Evan S. Medeiros, China’s International Behavior: Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 2009).

7.Anil Kumar, New Security Concept of China: An Analysis, IPCS Series on Inside China (New Delhi: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2012).

8.Amitav Acharya, “Power Shift or Paradigm Shift: China’s Rise and Asia’s Security Order,” International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 1 (2014).

9.Ian Storey, Southeast Asia and the Rise of China: The Search for Security (New York: Rutledge, 2011).

10.“An Asian Infrastructure Bank: Only Connect,” The Economist, October 4, 2013.

11.Xi Jinping, “New Asian Security Concept for New Progress in Security Cooperation,” (remarks at the 4th Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, May 21, 2014).

12.“China Urges Caution form US over South China Sea Disputes,” The Guardian, May 13, 2015.

13.Michael D. Swayne, America’s Challenge: Engaging Rising China in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).

14.Gilbert Rozman, “Chinese Strategic Thinking on Multilateral Regional Security in Northeast Asia,” Orbis 55, no. 2 (Spring 2011)

15.Jae-Kyung Park, China-U.S. Relations in East Asia: Strategic Rivalry and Korea’s Choice (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2013).

16.“ASEAN defense chiefs fail to agree on South China Sea statement,” Reuters, November 4, 2015,

17.“Park says S. Korea reliable partner of US,” Yonhap News, October 15, 2015,

18.“South Korea’s Park to play balancing act between China and Japan,” Reuters, October 28, 2015,–business.html.

19.Scott A. Snyder, “South Korea’s Delicate Regional Balancing Act,” Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, October 15, 2015,

20.Shin-wha Lee and Boram Kwon, “The Pursuit of Multilateral Security Cooperation Amidst Growing Political and Economic Divides in Northeast Asia,” The Korean Journal of International Studies 13, no. 2 (2015).

21.Shin-wha Lee, “South Korea’s Search for a New Diplomatic Strategy toward North Korea: Trustpolitik as a Goldilocks Approach?” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies–Asia’s Slippery Slope: Triangular Tensions, Identity Gaps, Conflicting Regionalism, and Diplomatic Impasse toward North Korea (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2014).

22.Van Jackson, “Can South Korea Fix Northeast Asia’s Cooperation Deficit?” The Diplomat, September 3, 2015,

23.“US Experts said ‘NAPCI is creative, playing a leverage role,’” (in Korean) CSIS-Korea Foundation Joint Seminar, Yonghap News, October 3, 2015,

24.Han Sung-Joo, “Grand Strategy for South Korea? An Overview,” The Asan Forum 3, no. 4 (2015).

25.Shin-wha Lee and Boram Kwon, “The Pursuit of Multilateral Security Cooperation.”

26.White House, “Remarks by President Obama and President Park of the Republic of Korea in Joint Press Conference,” October 16, 2015,

27.Gilbert Rozman, “South Korea and Sino-Japanese Rivalry: A Middle Power’s Options with the East Asia Core Triangle,” The Pacific Review 20, no. 2 (2007).