While tensions between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States have intensified over Taiwan for the past several months, the risk of war in the region looms large. After the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August this year, Beijing conducted live-fire military drills intensively around the island, which was followed by the Taiwanese military exercises. The Chinese government does not renounce the use of force to unify Taiwan and the U.S. side promises to protect the island in case of China’s attack. There is no denying that no one in the Indo-Pacific region wants to see a cross-strait conflict. Especially the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) is concerned about the problem of Taiwan for at least two reasons. The first reason has to do with a possibility in which the United States would devote its military forces to fending off aggression against Taiwan and leave South Korea alone to deal with the security problem in the peninsula. The second reason involves South Korea’s entrapment in a war as a U.S. ally and fight against the PRC. The two elements are not mutually exclusive and present the ROK government with an acute dilemma in the making of foreign policy. This article does not assume that a war between the United States and Taiwan on the one hand and China on the other hand looks highly likely. Nor does it argue that a war among them is unavoidable. However, envisaging how the South Koreans would respond to a worst-case scenario (a war over Taiwan) may help us assess the value and utility of the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Main Security Problem in the Korean Peninsula
First off, if a war comes to the Taiwan Straits, South Korea might have to be in charge of the main task of defense and deterrence in the peninsula. Since the 1953 armistice agreement paused heavy fighting in the Korean war, the ROK has been technically at war against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and the U.S.-South Korean alliance has played a significant role in maintaining the stability of the Korean peninsula. Washington’s involvement in a cross-strait war does not necessarily mean that the state would forsake its Korean ally. However, the United States would want to use its forces in Korea (USFK) to deal with a war with China even if it would go beyond the core mission of defending the Korean peninsula. There is a lack of coordination between the United States and South Korea regarding the role of USFK in regional contingencies and only a nominal agreement exists between the two allies to “preserve the peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.” Nevertheless, Seoul does not rule out the possibility of confronting North Korea without the U.S. presence in case war over the democratic island takes place.
In his interview with CNN in September this year, the South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol stated that the North Korean nuclear capability poses an imminent threat to the South. He also evinced concern for the North’s possible aggression should tensions over the Taiwan Straits turn into a conflict. The reasoning behind his apprehension is that the Pyongyang regime may be emboldened to take military action when the United States would focus on the problem of Taiwan while paying less attention to the Korean peninsula. North Korea might coordinate with China to launch military attacks against the South in order to distract the United States into two front wars in Northeast Asia. This has something to do with a notion developed in the early Cold War that the fate of the ROK was closely tied with that of Taiwan. For this reason, a historical record shows that the United States neutralized the area of Taiwan two days after the breakout of the Korean war by deploying the seventh fleet to the straits.
Similarly important was the increasing number of discussions among the South Korean people about the on-going war in Ukraine and how North Korea would take advantage of this crisis for its own benefit. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February, it was expected that Pyongyang was more likely to initiate provocations vis-à-vis South Korea, as a political division among the United States, China and Russia would make it difficult for the international community to respond to such activities. Indeed, the North Korean regime conducted ballistic missile tests every month this year and the number and frequency of tests drastically increased compared with the previous year. For the ROK government, the main security problem is associated with how to confront the enhanced capability and the augmented number of North Korea’s ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads and whether or not Seoul’s current military strategy, called “system to respond to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction,” or “three-axis system,” could stave off threats from Pyongyang. Therefore, the majority of the ROK forces would focus on deterring North Korea and preparing for a war in the peninsula upon the failure of deterrence while a war over Taiwan would continue.
Entrapment in a War with China
Second, South Korea is anxious about a possibility in which the state would be entrapped in a war between the United States and China. A critical question is if Seoul would fight actively along with Washington against Beijing in the crisis. If so, it means that South Korea would fulfill its commitment as a reliable alliance partner to assist the U.S. military operations abroad. However, such a decision would run the risk of placing major military assets in Korea under Chinese attack. Unlike North Korea, China has enhanced military capability with substantial resources invested in research and development programs for the past thirty years and Seoul may not be ready to face a situation in which Beijing, a fierce military power, would turn its back against the South. By contrast, if the ROK decides not to face off against the PRC, its seventy-year-old alliance relationship with the United States would be put in danger. The decision would be considered as choosing China over the United States and, therefore, engender the termination of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Nevertheless, Seoul would be placed in the state of conflict with Beijing even if it refuses to provide assistance to Washington because the U.S. forces and bases in Korea would be the target of the Chinese military. All in all, because the consequences of choosing the abovementioned two options would be detrimental, a cost-benefit analysis is likely to cause the ROK government to avoid such choices for the time being. This means that South Korea’s response to the regional conflict would include verbal support for the United States without actual military assistance.
South Korea’s Approach to the Taiwan Issue
It is important to discuss Seoul’s view on Taiwan. Upon formalizing bilateral relations with China in August 1992, the South Korean government recognized the PRC instead of Taiwan, pledging its support of a ‘one China’ policy. On a regular basis, the ROK government confirmed this principle in an effort to reassure its Chinese counterpart. Recently, South Korea issued a ritual statement in response to a newly developed confrontation between the United States and China after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. A spokesperson in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) noted that Korea would adhere to the one China policy irrespective of the U.S. position, which seemed a sympathetic expression to the Chinese side. He then highlighted that the peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits were important to promoting the regional security and prosperity, warning the two large powers against hostile activities to one another.
Beneath the surface, however, there exists an ambiguity in South Korea’s position. The ROK government acknowledges that the People’s Republic is the only legal government of China and Taiwan is part of it. That is, Seoul does not recognize Taipei as a sovereign entity. However, the former and the latter have dispatched a diplomatic representative office to maintain ‘informal’ bilateral relations. Economic interactions between the two remained important for the past thirty years and Taiwan constituted the fifth largest trade partner for the ROK in 2021 and the sixth largest partner in the first half of 2022. Moreover, people to people contacts increased drastically for the past several years and more than 1.26 million Taiwanese visited South Korea in a year before the COVID-19 pandemic.
With democratic values and economic interests shared between the two, would the Seoul government be driven to defend Taiwan? The answer is unclear. In fact, the South Koreans have been careful not to displease the Chinese with respect to the issue of Taiwan. For example, the Taiwanese were not invited to the inauguration ceremonies of the South Korean presidents (except President Park Geun-hye) after the termination of diplomatic ties in 1992. A recent incident also indicates Seoul’s cautious approach. After her high-profile trip to Taiwan, Pelosi paid a visit to South Korea. Naturally, considerable attention was paid to how the Republic would greet the U.S. high-ranking politician. Coincidentally, the Korean President went on a summer vacation ‘at home’ in Seoul and he talked to her on the phone instead of meeting her in person. Later, the presidential office announced that it was a decision carefully made on the basis of national security, causing some suspicion that the South contemplated the China factor.
It is notable that South Korea started to address Taiwan in the context of the regional security recently. In the past, the ROK avoided discussing the issue in public with respect to the bilateral alliance with the United States. Last year, the president of South Korea for the first time in history emphasized preserving “peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits” in the joint statement with the U.S. counterpart. It came out when Seoul was reticent for quite a while about the U.S. encouragement to participate in new multilateral frameworks, such as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and Quad plus, combining the U.S. allies and ‘like-minded’ democratic partners together. Although the United States openly argued that the new architecture was not designed to antagonize the PRC, it was viewed as Washington’s effort to re-establish its leadership challenged by Beijing’s growing economic and political influence. While staying lukewarm in joining the U.S.-led networks, South Korea decided to include the problem of Taiwan in the structure of bilateral relations with the United States, which, some people believe, was a compromise between the two alliance partners.
South Korea’s statement on Taiwan by far keeps a low profile in contrast to Japan’s. The Japanese publicly state that Taiwan is an important partner sharing the fundamental values in democracy and that “the peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan.” The Japanese defense white paper provides a careful analysis about the Chinese advanced military capability and strategy and studies a possible conflict between China and Taiwan. By contrast, the ROK defense white paper, published biennially, places the focus mostly on investigating the North Korean threat while it has never addressed the issue of Taiwan even when assessing regional security problems. Washington understands that Tokyo and Seoul differ on this matter. When President Joe Biden had a trip to Asia in May this year, he was committed to defending Taiwan against the Chinese aggression. Putting a debate aside regarding whether or not the United States gave up the long-kept position of strategic ambiguity in the cross-strait relations, it is worth noting that such a commitment came out after Biden’s summit meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, not with the South Korean leader.
So, what does it mean to the Republic’s position regarding a war over Taiwan? The South Korean government fears both abandonment and entrapment if the United States gets involved in a cross-strait conflict. The South is worried about being left alone and realizes that the state should rely on its own capability for survival. Although the United States does not discard the ROK, Seoul would fear abandonment regardless. Such concern is rooted in Seoul’s experience that the United States changed its alliance policy to withdraw forces without reflecting the ally’s concern in the past. In particular, the U.S. government under President Donald Trump demanded South Korea and other allies contribute more to the cost of stationing U.S. troops and threatened to withdraw forces if the demand is not accommodated. Also, South Korea would fear entrapment because it might be entangled in the battlefield in which the United States would fight against the PRC. The fear of entrapment will increase among the South Korean people as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and a war looks more likely. The combination of abandonment and entrapment fears was reflected in the important agreement between Seoul and Washington about the role of USFK in 2006. While the United States sought to quickly move and deploy the U.S. strategic assets in Korea to another place, South Korea was reluctant to agree on the flexible use of USFK. After a painful negotiation process, a consensus was reached between the two on the strategic flexibility and South Korea’s intent was manifested in the content of the agreement. It said, “The United States respects the ROK’s position that it shall not get involved in a regional conflict against the will of the Korean people.”
If push comes to shove, Seoul would be engrossed in handling Pyongyang’s military threats and preparing for a war with the DPRK while seeking ways to delay the Chinese attack on the peninsula. Even if the Republic decides to provide assistance to the United States, it would be solely declaratory due to Seoul’s incapacity and reluctance to fight a war beyond the peninsula. If economic sanctions are imposed against China at the early stage of fighting, Seoul might be hesitant about participating given the high economic interdependence with Beijing. Therefore, it is plausible to expect that the Chinese government might instrumentalize these challenges to disrupt the U.S.-ROK collaboration should a cross-strait conflict occur.
Dr. Hyon Joo Yoo is an associate professor in the department of political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, Korea. Yoo was a tenured faculty member at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, a Northeast Asia fellow at the East West Center, Washington, D.C., an East Asia Institute (EAI) Fellow, and a Korea Foundation Fellow. Her research interests include the U.S. alliance, East Asian security, China’s foreign policy, Korean politics, and international relations theory.
This paper is a written version of a contribution made on 2nd June 2022 at a conference ‘Is War over Taiwan Coming?’ held at the University of Quebec at Montreal.
The original version of this text was published in French on Le Rubicon. Check it out here!