Academic journal article Asia Policy

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: South Korea's Strategic Dilemmas with China and the United States

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: South Korea's Strategic Dilemmas with China and the United States

Article excerpt

On September 2, 2015, South Korean president Park Geun-hye visited Beijing upon invitation by Chinese president Xi Jinping to attend the country's celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Joined by Russian president Vladimir Putin and other foreign guests, Presidents Park and Xi watched a massive military parade at Tiananmen Gate. Absent from the celebration was the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Ironically, 61 years ago it was Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung, founding fathers of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and North Korea, respectively, who were standing together in the same place to see a military review. Perhaps nothing can better illustrate the current state of affairs in China's relations with the two Koreas than a juxtaposition of these two contrasting images.

The bilateral relationship between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and China under the current Park and Xi governments is undeniably at its strongest point in modern history, with a series of efforts underway to consolidate and institutionalize their strategic partnership. The first summit between the two leaders in June 2013 led to the establishment of four strategic communication channels to regularize high-level strategic dialogues. Both countries also pledged to move forward on their previous agreement to set up a military hotline between their defense ministers. With respect to the economic relationship, the two countries signed the China-Korea Free Trade Agreement and agreed to establish a direct trading market for the Chinese yuan and Korean won to further boost bilateral trade. All these measures are indicative of a new level of bilateral cooperation unprecedented in the modern history of Sino-ROK relations.

Nonetheless, South Korea's relations with China remain complex, and it appears unclear whether the current positive dynamic in the relationship will or can be sustained into the future, given a pattern of recurring fluctuations in South Korea's policy toward China. Some analysts may argue that this pattern has emerged because South Korea's China policy is determined by the administration in Seoul or the strength of the U.S.-ROK alliance. However, this vacillation actually results from far more fundamental conditions underlying South Korea's political, economic, and security considerations and geostrategic calculations, which create four strategic dilemmas for South Korea in dealing with China: dilemmas over power, economics, North Korea, and entrapment in the U.S. alliance. Understanding these four dilemmas is important because South Korea's policy toward China holds important geopolitical and regional implications. South Korea is a key U.S. ally in Asia, yet Seoul's growing closeness to Beijing amid emerging tensions and competition between the United States and China complicates U.S. strategy as it rebalances to the region. This situation also raises concerns about the future direction of the U.S.-ROK alliance. More broadly, South Korea's geostrategic trajectory could directly affect the balance of power in Asia. Whether South Korea inclines toward a rising China or stays anchored in the traditional alliance relationship with the United States, it could become a marker of Asia's future direction.

This essay first will examine each of the four dilemmas identified above and South Korea's position in them to promote a better understanding of the current trends in PRC-ROK relations and the principles driving South Korea's China strategy. It will then consider alternative arguments before concluding with a discussion of implications for regional relations and the U.S.-ROK alliance.


There is a basic puzzle with regard to the South Korean view of China. On the one hand, South Korea views China as the second most favorable country among regional powers after the United States.1 On the other hand, South Korea also views China as a major threat. These diverging views mark a clear departure from South Korea's negative perception of China in the 1950-60s, when China was largely considered a Communist adversary during the Korean War and later North Korea's staunch ally. …

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