US President Donald Trump arrived in South Korea on Tuesday for a two-day state visit, as part of his Asia tour that will culminate in the APEC meeting Friday and Saturday in Vietnam and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippines next week.
On Tuesday, Trump visited Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek city, which is one of the most sophisticated and largest US military bases around the world. He welcomed Seoul’s decision to purchase US’ state-of-the-art strategic assets such as nuclear-powered submarines and military-intelligence satellites, saying it would help cut US trade deficits and “create more jobs for the American people.”
Trump’s visit to South Korea comes as Beijing decides to mend ties with Seoul. On October 30, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha ruled out the possibility of deploying additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries, the South joining US-led missile defense system, and entering into a formal trilateral military alliance with Washington and Tokyo.
Kang’s strong comments are rare for the traditional diplomat whose language usually comes with nuance and strategic ambiguity to secure greater diplomatic maneuverability and leverage, highlighting South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s firm will to improve relations with China.
On Wednesday, Trump spoke before the South Korean National Assembly, where he expressed his views on issues such as military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, re-deployment of tactical nuclear weapons and US-Japan-South Korea military alliance.
On October 14, Moon had called for military restraint on all sides, stating that he would “block war by all means” and that military action against North Korea should be decided only by South Koreans and “not by anyone else.”
Indeed, during the past few months, leaders of the US and North Korea have been playing a game of chicken, both unleashing a war of words, thereby causing widespread confusion in the international community. The “madman” playbook is worrisome because it can cause misunderstanding and strategic maladjustment leading to a disastrous butterfly effect in Northeast Asia.
In such a hostile international environment, South Korea’s and China’s recent decision to resume military dialogue comes at an opportune time. On October 24, defense ministers of the two countries held their first one-on-one meeting in two years. Working-level talks and chief-of-staff dialogue mechanism severed since January 2016 and June 2013, respectively, are also scheduled to resume at a later time. Such military channels provide a niche to improve the quality of bilateral relationship, and can add both content and substance to their existing “strategic and cooperative partnership.”
Moon’s diplomatic vision for Northeast Asia clearly reflects this point. His balanced foreign policy embracing both China and the US was clearly reflected in Kang’s “three-no” position and its exclusion from the US’ new Asia strategy which many pundits predict will involve cooperation with Japan, Australia, and India in the Indo-Pacific region.
In this context, South Korea is in a unique position to become a strategic fulcrum for China, at least under the Trump and Moon administration. It is crucial that both countries utilize this historical moment to build up strategic and military substance, so that any future possible security frictions do not erode their hard-won friendship.
Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University once argued that South Korea could and should be a natural security ally of China.
Although Yan’s vision is unlikely to materialize in the near to medium future, the two countries at least have sufficient collective economic, diplomatic, and military power to leverage peace in East Asia and provide global public goods for the region in the form of traditional and non-traditional security. Such strategic objectives are beneficial for both China which seeks to become a major power with Chinese characteristics and South Korea which needs to boost its diplomacy.
[The author is an assistant professor at Tongji University Department of Diplomacy. [email protected]]