International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia

1 September 2022

If South Korea wants to ensure its middle power status in a changing region and give itself a strong footing in Northeast Asia, it must depend less on the United States, Seung Hugh Shin writes.

South Korea is a middle power. Its economy is usually ranked around 12th in the world by gross domestic product and, according to Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index, it is the fifth-strongest military power in the Indo-Pacific region.

As its past political leaders wished, the country has emerged from decolonisation as a ‘strong middle power’ with substantial hard power, an ability to make an impact, and international recognition. The recent invitation to South Korea to attend the G7 summit is testament to this.

It is therefore natural that many South Koreans take their country’s middle power status for granted. However, despite finding it intrusive and inconvenient, the government cannot ignore questions about whether South Korea will remain a credible middle power in years to come.

Fundamentally, South Korea’s status as a middle power rests on the United States remaining the hegemonic power in the region indefinitely.

South Korean policymakers must acknowledge that South Korea’s middle power status is heavily dependent on a US-led regional order and do more to branch out.

Under American leadership and thanks to American aid, South Korea’s economy has grown strongly over many decades. This high performance largely relied on China’s peaceful economic development within a US-led international system.

More on this: Strengthening South Korea’s voice

Indeed, the country has derived substantial direct benefits from its alliance with America, both to its economy and military. Economically, the United States provided massive post-war economic investment to the country, along with access to American markets. Militarily, it provided hardware, intelligence, and training that South Korea could not have generated alone.

South Korea’s close relationship with the United States has not only enhanced its economic and military power but has also helped boost its political clout in international affairs. The more the United States appears to value South Korea, the more respect it has received from other countries, and the more influence it can exert in the international arena.

What this means is that South Korea is a ‘dependent middle power’. Its relative power in both quantitative and qualitative terms is dependent on the United States.

But how can South Korea remain a middle power in the Indo-Pacific, when American primacy in the region may cease to exist?

In the Indo-Pacific century, South Korea finds itself in a very different and more contested region, where the enablers of its economic and military power could rapidly disappear in a time of crisis.

This is not an overly pessimistic view. As China’s power grows, it is becoming more frustrated with its place in the old US-led regional order, and thus wants to transform the landscape in its own image in coming years. American political leaders, from both the right and the left, are not happy with letting China decide the region’s future and are determined to preserve the status quo.

Leaders in South Korea, for their part, do acknowledge that their country is stuck between its security guarantor and its largest trading partner, and that a choice between them is just unthinkable.

They hope their country achieve a reasonable balance between the United States and China and the government continues to bandwagon economically with China while relying on the United States for their security.

This is how President Moon Jae-in designed and implemented South Korea’s diplomacy – he embraced a strategy of bandwagoning with different great powers in different areas.

More on this: Taiwan and South Korea head in different directions

The problem, however, is that this strategy is no longer feasible. Bandwagoning alone cannot give South Korea the footing it wants in the region. If crisis struck, it would be weakened, scrambling to find its footing in a hotly contested region.

If South Korea wants to avoid a gradual decline, becoming a middle power in name only, it should make an effort to reduce its dependence on the United States.

The most obvious way for it to do this is to become an even stronger military power by enhancing its armed forces, but it’s frankly questionable whether it would be wise to use a much larger portion of its economic might on its military than it already does.

Moreover, more operational self-reliance would help but would not be enough for South Korea to compete with its potential adversaries in a real conflict.

Instead, South Korea must employ a strategy of coalition building around particular issues.

There are two arguments for this strategy.

First, the country can concentrate resources on issues of the highest importance to its interests, generating the best return on its investment of attention and money.

Second, it can enhance its reputation as a credible middle power by taking a leading role in addressing these issues diplomatically, rather than taking a military-first approach.

Specifically, Yoon Suk-Yeol’s new government should embrace the previous government’s New Southern Policy to continue to deepen ties with ASEAN. Working more closely with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue would be another important step to establish a platform for building strong, trusting, and durable relationships with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, namely Japan, India, and Australia.

Of course, defence assets are still important. The government must strengthen its strategic ties with other Indo-Pacific players that share common concerns, interests, and values and build new technical relationships that support its ability to defend itself.

To be a credible middle power in this Indo-Pacific century where American primacy can’t be taken for granted, it is vital for South Korea to further develop its own ability to win others over in a crisis.

Above all, South Korea must stop ignoring the reality that its middle power status is precarious, and engage beyond its current partners to enhance its international political influence and secure its future.

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