The Folly of Pushing South Korea Toward a China Containment Strategy
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The Folly of Pushing South Korea Toward a China Containment Strategy


APLN senior associate fellow Jessica Lee writes on the negative consequences of pushing South Korea toward containing Beijing. The following is the executive summary. Please click on the adjacent link to read the full policy brief. The original post can be found on Quincy Institute’s website here.

The narrow victory of conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol in the recent South Korean presidential election comes against the backdrop of an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry, now compounded by the Ukraine crisis. Washington would like South Korea to play a security role in its Indo-Pacific strategy — a strategy that effectively aims to contain China.

However, South Korean elites (and the general public) are deeply ambivalent and internally divided on the question of containing China. Pushing South Korea — a robust democracy with major elite divisions — toward containing Beijing risks negative consequences for the United States. These include a reduction in U.S. influence in South Korea, erosion of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, a less-effective South Korean presence in the region, and, in the long run, the potential of South Korean neutrality with respect to China.

To avoid these negative outcomes for the United States, Washington should:

• Avoid pressuring South Korea to join its China-containment strategy,

• Refrain from including Seoul in emerging, non-inclusive, bloc-like structures of U.S. allies in Asia,

• Consider pulling back on its intended new Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployments until a greater consensus is reached within South Korea on the issue,

• See South Korea’s role as a bridge and an opportunity to stabilize Washington’s own relationship with Beijing. For example, both South Korea and China could be included in non-traditional security activities of the Quad such as infrastructure and climate change, and

• More generally, demilitarize the Quad and open it to wider participation for strengthening U.S. influence in Asia, rather than see it as a zero-sum vehicle for containing China.

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