from Asia Unbound

South Korea and Vietnam Between Beijing and Washington

October 23, 2013

South Korea's President Park Geun-hye (L) shakes hands with her Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang after a news briefing at the Presidential Palace during her official visit in Hanoi on September 9, 2013. (Luong Thai Linh/courtesy Reuters)
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South Korea

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

One of the most dramatic effects of China’s economic rise has been the potential strategic dilemma facing South Korea (and the other countries in East Asia), as it depends on relations with China as a major source of economic growth while it still relies on Washington for security. As reflected in President Park Geun-hye’s discussion of the “Asian paradox” and her Northeast Asian cooperation proposals, South Korea’s strategic preference is to avoid having to make a choice between Washington and Beijing. Therefore, South Korea has a major stake in good China-U.S. relations. Nonetheless, what are the hypothetical circumstances under which South Korea would make a strategic choice in favor of China over the United States?

This is the question that I explore in my chapter on “Korea, Between China and the United States” that has been recently published by Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center in Asia’s Middle Powers? The Identity and Regional Policy of South Korea and Vietnam. The premise of the volume is that these two former Chinese tributary states and Asian powers have much in common resulting from their parallel historical experiences and current geopolitical challenges in dealing with a powerful China.

In my chapter, I summarize major sticking points in the China-South Korea relationship (covered in greater detail here) and argue that South Korea will feel that it needs to make a strategic choice between China and the United States only if these two major powers reach parity with each other in their overall power to shape international institutions and influence the international financial rules of the game, or if they reach equivalent levels of military power. As long as the United States is the leading power and shaper of a global order that has enabled South Korea’s remarkable economic and political success, South Korea will not choose China as a strategic partner over the United States.

Even if China and the United States were to reach parity in their economic, political, and military power, the sunk costs from over six decades of security alliance with the United States will inhibit South Korea from suddenly abandoning the alliance. In addition, South Korean concerns about differences between China’s one-party political system and the values of American liberal democracy would inhibit South Korea from embracing China as a political partner over the United States. However, as a practical matter, South Korea’s task of avoiding the choice between China and the United States will not become any easier as China’s economic power continues to grow relative to that of the United States.

Park enhanced her leverage with Beijing as part of efforts to develop a closer relationship with China in June by affirming the strength of the ROK-U.S. alliance in her first overseas trip to Washington in May. Following her participation in the G20 in St. Petersburg in September, Park made an exceptionally early visit to Hanoi. With China’s rise as a defining background feature of their common experience and parallel aspirations to play a middle power role in the region, Seoul and Hanoi have potential to strengthen cooperation in many areas, including economic affairs, transparency of regional defense, promotion of environmental standards, and the development of mechanisms for peacefully addressing territorial issues.