Seoul remains ambivalent. The Moon government turned down Donald Trump’s request to work with the Quad. South Korea fears potential economic backlash from China, its largest trading partner. But both Biden’s approach to the Quad and South Korea’s own evolving interests make its membership in the Quad a possibility. My research examines why Seoul has embraced the United States’ Indo-Pacific policy in general — and why its support may have limits.
Biden’s approach has made South Korea more likely to consider joining the Quad
Trump’s presidency shocked South Korean policymakers. South Korean liberals and conservatives alike condemned the Trump administration’s treatment of the country, which had been Washington’s ally for decades. The Moon government despaired at Trump’s erratic decision-making. Joining the Quad was a non-starter.
The Biden administration entered office promising to work with the United States’ international partners. It quickly negotiated an agreement to cover the costs of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, a discussion that had dragged for a year under Trump. The Biden administration has consulted with South Korea about how to relate to North Korea, as Trump did not. Biden’s approach to relations with its ally generated goodwill even before the new president formally took office.
Equally relevant, the first joint statement issued by the Quad leaders after their March meeting caught Seoul’s attention. China was not mentioned once, even though the group is surely concerned with countering Beijing. But Trump had an explicit anti-China approach that made Seoul uneasy. By not mentioning the regional elephant in the room, the Biden administration made room for South Korea to participate in the Quad while not openly antagonizing China.
Meanwhile, under Biden the Quad has listed specific areas in which it will cooperate: vaccine development and distribution, the fight against climate change and developing emerging technologies. South Korea is home to world-class firms and research in these areas, especially tech. Seoul can see how it can contribute to Biden’s vision. This was not the case under Trump, when the Quad’s meetings resulted in little of substance.
Building regional influence
To understand South Korea’s foreign policy including its relationship with the United States, I interviewed more than 50 South Korean policymakers; analyzed over 2,000 presidential and ministerial speeches given between 1988 and 2020, and examined white papers and national strategies published during those same years. Here’s what I learned: For South Korean policymakers, the alliance with the United States is based on far more than deterring North Korea. Seoul is willing to support its ally’s policies both out of gratitude and because doing so serves its own interests.
There’s another reason to cooperate with Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy. South Korean presidents have long aimed at having the country be recognized as a more active global player. In 1993, Kim Young-sam introduced “globalization” as the goal of South Korean foreign policy, meaning political, economic, and cultural openness of the then-newly rich nation. Every administration ever since has built on it. For example, Lee Myung-bak, president from 2008 to 2013, built his foreign policy around the goal of a “Global Korea,” by which he meant a commitment to international diplomacy, peace and development, and values such as democracy or a market economy.
The current Moon government has a similar approach, aiming to expand Seoul’s foreign policy horizons, by strengthening diplomatic and economies ties with old partners and developing links with new countries. That includes its New Southern Policy, which aims to strengthen economic and diplomatic links with Southeast Asia and India. That geographical focus fits nicely with the area of most interest to the Quad. In fact, only last week the United States and South Korea pledged to increase cooperation in the region, including upholding freedom of navigation, the rule of law, and peaceful dispute resolution.
South Korea has been souring on China
Certainly, the threat of Chinese economic retribution has made the Moon government cautious about supporting explicitly anti-China coalitions, as with Trump’s Quad policy.
But South Korea’s perceptions of China have deteriorated in recent years. When the previous Park Geun-hye government agreed to allow the United States to deploy its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) antimissile defense system in South Korea, Beijing imposed economic sanctions. Chinese jet fighters regularly fly into South Korea’s air defense identification zone. The two countries have had several diplomatic spats, including on Beijing’s claim that kimchi originates in China. Simply put, there is no love lost between Seoul and Beijing.
Treat them with respect and they will come
South Korea might still decline to formally join the Quad. Nevertheless, the May 21 summit could still be useful for U.S. foreign policy. The Biden administration’s emphasis on cooperation appeals to countries like South Korea wedged between the United States and China. As Washington tries to convince Southeast Asian and European countries to support its Indo-Pacific policy, emphasizing cooperation may be more successful than emphasizing opposition to China.
Some observers have argued that the Moon government will not commit to anything that could irk Beijing. That’s clearly false. It has embraced G-7 participation. It has pursued the New Southern Policy, which can create synergies with Quad countries. Seoul would rather not publicly choose between the United States and China. But beyond the headlines, we can see that Seoul has already made its choice.