South Korea’s Strategic Autonomy: Maintaining Regional Stability Amid US-China Competition
Asia Dialogue on China-US Relations

South Korea’s Strategic Autonomy: Maintaining Regional Stability Amid US-China Competition

Read the full report here.

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Executive summary

The stresses of the China-US strategic competition are felt most acutely in East Asia. The line between the United States and China’s spheres of influence can be roughly drawn along four flashpoints from north to south in East Asia: the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the China-Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. Connecting these flashpoints creates a line that cuts across East Asia from top to bottom which the United States is trying to maintain and China is trying to break. This is the fault line of great power confrontation, which runs right through East Asia.

As China’s military footprint grows in the region, many in Washington and Seoul question its willingness to engage in meaningful diplomacy. For this reason, Washington has recognised Seoul as a true strategic partner. While this recognition comes with certain benefits, such as reassurance against North Korean provocations, it also demands South Korea to play a bigger role in the US global strategy and be drawn into a network of states that encircle China. And while the Yoon administration claims that it is strengthening the alliance with the United States chiefly to counter the threat from North Korea, in doing so, the administration is taking sides between the United States and China. The Yoon administration is pursuing diplomacy that makes it difficult to improve relations with China at a time when the Korean Peninsula risks becoming a theatre for great power competition and proxy conflicts.

President Yoon also expressed support for the Biden administration’s division of the world into “democratic” and “authoritarian” countries, a worldview that does not allow for compromise. For South Korea, which developed as an open trade country, pursuing an ideologically driven “blocisation” in this manner arguably generates constraints on its foreign policy flexibility.

To prevent the advent of a new Cold War, South Korea needs to take an active role in de-escalating the China-US conflict in Northeast Asia. It is important to build an alternative cooperative security architecture that can maintain regional stability, which is being shaken by the China-US strategic competition. Now is the time to ask fundamental questions about what kind of stability is achievable and beneficial to the region.

For countries in the region, avoiding unwanted involvement in a China-US conflict and minimising collateral damage will be no easy task. Throughout the history of Northeast Asia, armed conflicts have occurred when emerging powers rise, and countries caught in the middle of geopolitical rivalries have suffered. Chronic bilateral conflicts have a high risk of escalating, and North Korea’s nuclear development and the deterioration of US-North Korea relations pose a fundamental threat to peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. Under previous administrations, South Korea has been one of the region’s most active advocates for regional cooperation and multilateral security dialogues. Consecutive South Korean administrations – both progressive and conservative – have adopted initiatives for regional cooperation and achieved some success. South Korea was especially active in the formation of mini-lateral organisations across competing blocs.

After taking office in 2017, the Moon administration sought regional cooperation through the New Southern and New Northern policies, aimed respectively at economic cooperation with Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia. These policies were a means to respond to the increasingly intense strategic competition between the United States and China to relieve the pressure to choose between them.

Rather than using cooperative security mechanisms to engage with China and address its military build-up, the creation of a US-led containment network exacerbates the security dilemma in the region, perpetuating an arms race. Security concerns in South Korea and Japan, fuelled by North Korea’s nuclear development, have resulted in substantial military investments, and the China-US competition’s spillover into the military realm has led to scepticism of arms control regimes. Over time, most Northeast Asian countries have become a part of the arms race and are at odds with one another. This has resulted in opportunity costs for those who seek alternative approaches to security, prosperity, exchange, and cooperation.

South Korea must discard the perception that it must choose sides in the China-China-US competition. Domestically, South Korea is split on how to respond. Some argue that it is unwise to choose one side exclusively and that Seoul should take a balanced approach towards the two superpowers – an approach generally pursued by progressive governments. Others argue that strategic ambiguity is unwise and that prioritising the US relationship is the correct option, as seen in the approach adopted by the Yoon administration, as well as previous conservative governments.

However, past conservative governments have been more prone to balancing than the Yoon administration, and in theory, there is nothing stopping President Yoon from pursuing a more balanced approach.

Unlike the US-Soviet Union bipolar system of the past, the United States and China are deeply interdependent, and many countries have managed not to choose one or the other. South Korea’s position in Northeast Asia, at the frontline of the China-US strategic competition, makes this task more difficult; however, it does not leave South Korea completely without options. 

South Korea should pursue strategic autonomy. This approach is underpinned by its global supply chain, culture and normative values.

Building on the values underpinning strategic autonomy, South Korea should also promote solidarity with countries in similar positions. Rather than passively responding to the perception of the choice of the United States over China or vice versa, South Korea should build a “third zone” in solidarity with other countries that also seek strategic autonomy. For this purpose, South Korea should align itself with middle powers.

Moreover, South Korea’s diplomacy has been reactive to the security environment. South Korea must proactively, repeatedly, and in solidarity with other countries, declare diplomatic principles that can guide its foreign policy. In the era of China-US strategic competition, as long as diplomacy remains reactive to developments, a country cannot escape the trap of choosing between one great power or another.

The report proposes seven basic principles to guide South Korean diplomacy, grounded in strategic autonomy:

  • Korean diplomacy supports cooperative security based on global governance, grounded in inclusive multilateralism and opposition to factions or blocs.
  • Korean diplomacy supports regional and global peace and opposes war on the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, and in Northeast Asia.
  • Korean diplomacy will maintain South Korea’s national identity as an open trade country, support free trade, and oppose protectionism. 
  • South Korea, as a divided country and a country still at war, does not intervene in conflicts in other regions or provide lethal weapons. 
  • Korean diplomacy supports the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the transformation of Northeast Asia into a nuclear-weapon-free zone. 
  • South Korea supports freedom of navigation on the high seas and opposes changing the status quo by force. 
  • Korean diplomacy is committed to solving climate change, one of humanity’s greatest crises. 

Proactive diplomacy creates predictability in an uncertain security environment. Doing so will further enhance the predictability of the security environment and contribute to regional stability in Northeast Asia.


About the Author

Joon Hyung Kim is Professor of the International Studies Department, Handong Global University, former Chancellor of the KNDA (Korea National Diplomatic Academy). He is currently President of Korea Diplomacy Plaza. In April 2024, he was elected to the 22nd National Assembly for the Rebuild Korea Party.

His areas of specialization and interests are theories of international relations, Northeast Asian relations including US-China, US-ROK, and North-South Korean relations. He was also invited as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar to George Mason University. Since 2016, he was a member of Moon Jae In’s presidential election camp, where he consulted and wrote major foreign policies. After Moon was elected, he joined the Government Transition Committee, and became a member of the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning. In addition, he belongs to Advisory Committees to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Unification, and the National Security Council. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree at Yonsei University (1986), and M.A. and Ph.D. at George Washington University.

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to

Image: Blue House, Seoul, South Korea. Presidential residence of the ROK President until 2022. Jirka Matousek, Flickr.

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