May 25, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden-Moon Summit Signals Tougher South Korean Stance Against China

May 25, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden-Moon Summit Signals Tougher South Korean Stance Against China

President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held their first summit on May 21 in Washington. While public attention has focused primarily on Biden’s and Moon’s respective policies toward North Korea, the final joint statement by the two leaders also included passages suggesting the alliance could take a stronger stance against China.

The statement announced the termination of the bilateral Revised Missile Guidelines, signed in 1979, which limited South Korean ballistic missile development to systems with a range of 180 kilometers and a payload of 50 kilograms. In subsequent years, Seoul and Washington revised the guidelines’ terms to extend the range limit to 800 kilometers, lift all payload restrictions, and enable South Korea to develop solid-fuel missiles starting in July 2020. The complete termination of the guidelines now removes even those limits, enabling Seoul to develop long-range precision-strike missiles.

Military experts recognize that future operational concepts will rely heavily on long-range precision-strike capabilities. The guidelines’ termination thus sends a message to China that Seoul is developing missile capabilities that could target threats to South Korea originating outside of the Korean Peninsula, including in China.

Until now, Seoul has avoided raising tensions with Beijing. In 2017, China boycotted numerous South Korean retail, automotive, and tourism firms, causing millions of dollars in losses for the ROK economy, in protest of the U.S.-ROK alliance’s decision to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. Beijing charged that THAAD possesses radar capabilities that could detect Chinese missiles. Although it continues to deploy THAAD today, South Korea resolved the dispute with China by providing three major concessions, now known as the “three no’s agreement”: no deployment of additional THAAD launchers, no participation in a U.S.-led missile defense architecture, and no trilateral security alliance with the United States and Japan.

Prior to the summit, Seoul also avoided voicing opinions on issues inherent to the ongoing tensions in U.S.-China relations, such as Beijing’s intimidation of Taiwan and territorial aggression in the South China Sea. Notably, Seoul has been reluctant to participate in U.S.-led security and diplomatic initiatives, such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD+), which Beijing has criticized as tools for the containment of China.

Similarly, Seoul has been disinclined to openly back any of China’s policies and has continued to maintain a neutral position between the United States and China. For example, last August, Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese official, met with Suh Hoon, Moon’s national security director, reportedly to seek Seoul’s support on U.S.-China tensions over issues such as Chinese human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, to maintain neutrality, Suh avoided taking any stance toward Yang’s comments.

The U.S.-ROK joint statement sends Beijing a message concerning the alliance’s opposition to Chinese regional aggression. The statement says that Washington and Seoul oppose “all activities that undermine, destabilize, or threaten the rules-based international order,” notably “in the South China Sea and beyond.” The statement also includes an explicit reference to the alliance’s recognition of “the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

The United States and South Korea should expect China eventually to respond with extreme rhetoric and even coercive economic measures against Seoul to force a change in its policies, as Beijing attempted to do with THAAD. The Biden administration, and ideally the QUAD+, must be willing to back South Korea by offering Seoul immediate economic support if China escalates its economic actions. Washington should also consider proportionate countermeasures, such as sanctions and fines against Chinese firms that seek to coerce South Korea by cutting economic ties.

Without Washington’s firm support, Seoul may again yield to Beijing’s pressure, thereby undermining the progress achieved during the summit. Building on this momentum is essential to enable the U.S.-ROK alliance to contribute jointly to protecting the international rules-based order.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Mathew Ha is a research analyst. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, Mathew, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow the authors on Twitter @davidmaxwell161 and @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.


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