Despite much bluster on the campaign trail, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s promise to get “tougher on China” has been rhetorical at best.
When South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was elected in March of last year, many observers saw a China hawk in the making, anticipating that he would abandon the Moon Jae-in administration’s cautious China policy and side closely with Washington to stand against Beijing. Indeed, Yoon’s tough pre-election comments on China, his commitment to deepening security ties with the United States, the strong pro-U.S. sentiment embedded in South Korean right-wing ideology, and the populist temptation to engage in anti-China politics all seemed to make a hardline turn possible.
But nine months into his term, Yoon looks far from a China hawk.
As South Korea walked a fine line between the United States and China in the face of their growing hostility, there were several controversial issues where Seoul sought to tread carefully and maintained a gray stance in recent years. Even under the Yoon administration, South Korea’s position on these issues has not changed much.
One obvious case is the dispute with Beijing over regional missile defense. Seoul walked back Yoon’s election pledge to deploy additional U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile batteries on South Korean soil. Beijing perceived the initial THAAD deployment in 2017 as alliance collusion to weaken its missile capabilities and retaliated by boycotting South Korean goods. Hosting more THAAD batteries would push South Korea deeper into the China-U.S. crossfire, and this risk might have led Seoul to think twice.
Yoon eventually dropped the THAAD pledge, with the defense minister’s explanation that it was a decision “concerning the reality.” Seoul also stated that it has no intention to join a U.S.-led regional missile defense architecture – consistent with the previous administration’s stance.
Another case in point is Seoul’s distancing from the Taiwan issue. Back in August, Yoon refused to meet then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she visited Seoul after her controversial trip to Taiwan. The decision was based on “a comprehensive consideration of national interest,” according to the South Korean presidential office. Seoul has been more vocal about China’s assertiveness in the Taiwan Strait recently, but it has also repeatedly assured Beijing of South Korea’s support for “One China” and has refrained from taking any explicitly pro-Taiwan stance.
A third issue is whether South Korea will join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S. aimed in large part at countering China. During his election campaign, Yoon vowed to pursue formal membership in the Quad, and his advisers also initially advocated South Korea’s Quad membership. But the administration now appears to be settling for informal and issue-by-issue cooperation with the Quad on selective areas like climate change and vaccines rather than full integration. This direction would allow Seoul to work with the Quad but stay out of the group’s potential militarization against China.
Last and not least, the Yoon administration has balked at the U.S. policy to isolate China from semiconductor supply chains. Since early 2022, the United States has sought to get major semiconductor hubs around the globe – particularly South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, which along with the U.S. are dubbed the “Chip 4” – on board with its initiative to form a chip supply chain that excludes China. But the initiative has moved slowly without much progress in agenda-setting due to strong resistance within the group against its anti-China direction, especially from Seoul.
Stressing the importance of both the U.S. and Chinese markets for the South Korean semiconductor industry, officials in Seoul have reiterated that their government’s involvement in Chip 4 will be calibrated and conditioned in ways that do not harm its partnership with China. The Yoon administration’s semiconductor policy head held multiple meetings with the Chinese ambassador, reassuring him that South Korea does not intend to endorse U.S. export controls against China. While Seoul is enhancing semiconductor cooperation with Washington, it has not turned its back on Beijing, signing a new bilateral agreement to boost supply chain cooperation and communications.
In the end, Yoon’s “tougher on China” image has been rhetorical at best. Behind the rhetoric, the Yoon administration has avoided taking substantive anti-China gestures, and there is no indication that Seoul ever intends to. Looking at the administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the more likely scenario seems to be that South Korea continues charting a moderate course on China going forward under the Yoon administration.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy’s Careful Approach to China
When it comes to China, South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy quite sensibly diverges from the U.S. approach, which centers on containment. Seoul does not adopt Washington’s framing of the Indo-Pacific as a battleground between democracy and autocracy, in which China is the main opponent and a near-existential challenge. Instead, Seoul frames the Indo-Pacific as an “inclusive” region where “nations that represent diverse political systems” can peacefully co-exist. Seoul explicitly states that it “does not seek to target or exclude any specific nation” and defines China as a “key regional partner.”
To be sure, Seoul does worry about China’s assertiveness, and South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy addresses this, such as by upholding the rules-based order, showing support for peace and stability in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and opposing unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion or force. But Seoul avoids directly mentioning China by name, and its general tone vis-à-vis China is notably softer than respective documents by Washington and other relatively hawkish governments like Tokyo.
South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy also eschews the narrative of extreme competition with China and strongly emphasizes inclusive regional cooperation and engagement. Lamenting how “the rising geopolitical competition has stalled regional cooperation,” Seoul vows to promote an “inclusive economic and technological ecosystem” and prevent the “overwhelming securitization of economic issues.” These references appear to deliberately reject the idea of anti-China decoupling.