June 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

China’s Coercion Threatens ROK-U.S. Alliance

June 1, 2020 | Policy Brief

China’s Coercion Threatens ROK-U.S. Alliance

The White House released a report on May 20 outlining U.S. efforts to counter China’s threat to American interests and the sovereignty of nations and individuals worldwide. Among the strategic challenges highlighted in the report, one that merits further attention is Beijing’s intent to undermine and end U.S. alliances in Asia.

The report highlights the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) “use of economic, political, and military power” to intervene in “sovereign nations’ internal affairs to engineer consent for its policies.” China’s coercive activities span the globe. But particularly worrisome are Beijing’s efforts to target U.S. allies that are essential to the U.S-led rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, including the Republic of Korea (ROK).

The CCP has used diplomatic and economic coercion whenever Seoul pursued policies deemed unfavorable by Beijing. In 2017, angered by Seoul’s decision to deploy a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to counter North Korean missiles, the CCP launched an economic warfare campaign that cost South Korean companies operating in China at least $15.6 billion dollar in losses.

To placate China, Seoul eventually agreed not to deploy further THAAD systems, not to join a U.S.-led regional missile defense architecture, and not to form a trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK alliance. China hopes to maximize its military’s strategic advantages by limiting U.S.-Japan-ROK cooperation and interoperability. In November 2017, shortly after the THAAD dispute, Seoul rejected a U.S. proposal for a trilateral military exercise with Japan.

Additionally, due in part to concerns over Chinese retaliation, Seoul has not completely divested its telecommunications infrastructure from the Chinese company Huawei, despite well-documented evidence that the firm poses an espionage and data-privacy threat. With 28,500 U.S troops stationed in South Korea and another 3,500 deployed with the rotational brigade on the peninsula, ensuring full protection of communication networks is essential. South Korea’s unwillingness to sever ties with Huawei thus undermines U.S.-ROK cooperation and threatens U.S. and ROK strategic interests.

China’s hand is also evident in Seoul’s aversion to the U.S.- and Japan-led “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) initiative, designed to boost cooperation among Indo-Pacific nations. Concerned about upsetting Beijing, Seoul demurred at Washington and Tokyo’s offer to join FOIP. Instead, Seoul emphasized its “New Southern Policy,” which focuses on strengthening South Korea’s relations with Southeast Asian nations.

Beijing’s sway over this key U.S. ally is especially risky amid growing Chinese aggression and competition with the United States. Most recently, Beijing pushed Seoul to bless China’s new national security law designed to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Seeking to avoid conflict, Seoul took a neutral position, thereby undermining the protesters and revealing an alarming inability to support the liberal democratic values that underpin the ROK-U.S. alliance.

If its China strategy is to succeed, the Trump administration must counter Beijing’s attempts to undermine U.S. alliances, which act as a force multiplier for U.S. military and economic power and help uphold shared democratic values. To defend the ROK-U.S. alliance from Chinese encroachment, Washington should assuage ROK concerns about Chinese coercion by committing to proportionately punish China for any attempted coercion and to provide South Korea with immediate economic support to cope with Beijing’s retaliation. Additionally, Washington should resolve any outstanding intra-alliance issues, such as Washington and Seoul’s deadlocked burden sharing negotiations, to avoid giving China weaknesses to exploit.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea and China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Mathew, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


China Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power North Korea Sanctions and Illicit Finance U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy