Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The US Pivot to Asia and South Korea's Rise

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

The US Pivot to Asia and South Korea's Rise

Article excerpt

Since its inception as the Republic of Korea (ROK) in 1948, South Korea has experienced one of the most astonishing transformations of any country in the world in the modern era, witnessing remarkable economic, political, and social developments. Yet curiously, its security strategy has remained conspicuously consistent for the last sixty years, focused primarily on maintaining a robust deterrence and defense posture to sustain the status quo and prevent recurrence of conflict on the Korean peninsula. To promote the priority goal of national security, South Korea has consistently pursued several foreign policy objectives: economic prosperity, national prestige, and reunification, all the while relying on its security alliance with the United States as the primary pillar of stability.

Such a consistent national security strategy is not surprising given the persistent existential threat posed by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) since the Korean War, which ceased in 1953 with an armistice rather than a permanent peace treaty. Yet since the 1990s and the formal end of the Cold War, South Korea's security challenges have grown more complex and multifaceted and are no longer narrowly defined by the conventional military threat from North Korea. Four key trends have compelled a redefinition of South Korea's security calculations over the last decade: diversification of the North Korean threat; China's military modernization and increased assertiveness in the region; the US defense transformation and reorientation post 9/11; and South Korea's rise to middle power status and commensurate desire for greater autonomy.

Of these factors, the primary driver of South Korea's defense transformation is an internally based shift in its self-perception of national power, which is reinforced and shaped by changes in the external environment. While the US pivot or rebalance toward Asia has profoundly shaped debates and dialogue about security in the region, the policy has not had a direct impact on South Korea's security outlook. Indeed, South Korea's evolving security strategy is more clearly a manifestation of the country's changing perception of its status in the region and globally rather than any changes wrought by the US pivot. Indeed, the failure of the pivot to meet lofty expectations has actually weakened confidence among some US allies about the US security commitment in the region at a time of escalating tensions (Nakamura 2014).

These concerns are exacerbated by increasing pressure in the United States to reduce defense spending, which directly contradicts the Pentagon's ability to implement the pivot by directing more assets to the region. A senior US Defense Department official admitted the contradiction by saying that "right now, the pivot is being looked at again, because candidly it can't happen" due to cuts in the defense budget (Fryer-Biggs 2014).1 Ironically, one important rationale driving the Obama administration's pivot was the desire to increase US emphasis on Asia, to alleviate the perception that the US commitment there would wane given pressures to reduce overall US military spending (Manyin et al. 2012).

Ongoing uncertainty about the pivot's intentions, impact, and sustainability in the region is giving rise to increased anxieties about the future shape of the Asian security order in the twentyfirst century. Relative Asian weakness may be coming to an end, and open-ended questions about the future US role in the region have spurred what Rod Lyon (2014) calls a horizontal competition manifested in numerous territorial claims and disputes. But of greater concern may be an emerging vertical competition that prizes rank and status among countries that do not necessarily share a common vision of an accepted hierarchy in the region (Lyon 2014). The convergence of these two contests is contributing to increased demonstration of power projection capabilities as Asian nations jockey for their respective positions. …

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