In recent times, South Korea has gained recognition as a global hub for entertainment, fashion, and technology. This piqued the interest of many global netizens who are eager to learn about the country’s culture with a desire to visit it. The widespread popularity of K-pop also helped expand South Korea’s soft power when conducting diplomacy. However, amidst these achievements, the nation is grappling with substantial pressure arising from one of the most significant geopolitical tensions of the 21st century—U.S.-Sino relations.
As South Korea navigates its way in balancing relations between these two superpowers, it will encounter an increasing set of challenges preventing them from fully leveraging the benefits of each state. For South Korea to not be sandwiched by the two great powers, President Yoon must carefully outline Seoul’s national interests to determine a suitable path for South Korea, especially as the international arena is heading towards a polarized world. Nonetheless, South Korea is of importance to both the US and China due to factors including its strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region for trade, peace, security, and regional influence. Positioned at the center where authoritarianism meets democracy, Seoul is given the perfect opportunity to emerge as a key player in shaping global power dynamics between the East and the West.
Geographic Location as a Means to Preserve International Stability
South Korea’s impoverished yet dangerous neighbor forces Seoul to place peace and stability at the forefront of its agenda when evaluating US-Sino relations. North Korea’s unwavering commitment to upholding socialism and expanding its missile program is problematic to all states in the region. Even China, as one of North Korea’s only allies, has a hard time keeping North Korea in line; the regime did not hesitate to conduct a missile test during China’s 2017’s Belt and Road Initiative Forum, ignoring the diplomatic sensitivities of the occasion. Earlier this year, Pyongyang claimed to have developed “tactical” nuclear weapons capable of short-range attacks, thereby jeopardizing peace in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, the increasing threat from the North poses a significant risk to the economic stability of the region. The Asia-Pacific region tops the world as the fastest-growing economy, accounting for nearly half of all preferential trade agreements, while South Korea secures a position amongst the top ten largest economies. Despite differences in governance and opposing foreign policy agendas, Washington’s and Beijing’s shared commitments to upholding stability in the region emphasize the significance of both parties’ maintaining bilateral cooperation with Seoul.
Trilateral Diplomacy Through Chips?
South Korea has established itself as a technological leader, with Samsung and SK Hynix dominating the global market. Just as Seoul relies on the global supply chain for exports, Washington and Beijing rely on South Korea for imports and access to knowledge and expertise to create more advanced chips. This makes South Korea an attractive long-term partner. Furthermore, with the world’s reliance on technology increasing, a consistent supply of high-quality and dependable semiconductor chips is crucial for protecting national security.
Recognizing South Korea’s expertise, the United States appealed to strengthen economic relations with South Korea, safeguarding its national interests while mitigating potential risks associated with China’s influence. In 2021, both Seoul and Washington agreed to enhance cooperation in chip manufacturing, requiring Samsung and SK Hynix to invest over $30 billion in creating new plants in the US. However, Biden’s proposal would put limitations on Yoon from partnering with China, preventing Seoul from accessing its largest consumer market.
Xi’s proposal to Yoon is not unimpressive when compared to Biden’s offer. China’s crucial role in the global distribution of rare minerals, essential for advanced technological equipment, adds to the appeal. Notably, China dominates the global production of rare minerals, such as nickel, copper, lithium, and cobalt, making it an appealing partner for South Korea as both parties seek to advance their semiconductor industry. Geographically, China’s proximity to the peninsula provides logistical advantages. Deepening bilateral relations with Beijing can potentially result in reduced production costs for Seoul while fostering economic growth through increased trade with China and its trade partners. However, a partnership with Beijing will increase China’s sphere of influence in the region, posing a threat to South Korea’s political and economic stability, as witnessed with THADD deployment and Shen Yun performance.
Road to Cooperation
In an era marked by escalating geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, South Korea finds itself at a critical crossroads. In order to avoid falling into a pattern of appeasement during the next couple of decades, South Korea should adopt a comprehensive strategy that leverages its advanced semiconductor industry and strengthens its regional partnerships. The importance of South Korea’s role in the global tech supply chain should not be underestimated. With leading semiconductor companies like Samsung and SK Hynix deeply involved in the manufacturing processes of major US firms like Microsoft and Apple, as well as Chinese entities like Baidu, South Korea’s potential extends beyond being confined to legislation such as the CHIPs Act or its economic relations with China.
South Korea should also strengthen cooperation with regional actors, specifically Japan and Taiwan, to create an Asia Pacific trilateral partnership on shared interests. This newly formed alliance can create a new global tech supply chain that includes the United States and China. The cooperation will be led by South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, ensuring a balanced influence of all actors. The role of South Korea, along with Japan and Taiwan, will be to act as a mediator in the production and distribution of chips and semiconductors to both countries while creating policies to ensure that no actors in the production or consumption process will use chip information to sell national security information to any other players. If this can be achieved, it will promote greater stability in the region, foster dialogue between the United States and China, and maximize the benefits Seoul can receive from both countries.
Of course, the implementation of these proposals poses some challenges. First, while the start of a new relationship between South Korea and Japan seems promising, it is important to ensure that cooperation and the positive trajectory of the relationship are sustained over the long term. The durability of the partnership will be tested once Prime Minister Kishida and President Yoon’s terms are over and will depend on how their successors continue to prioritize and foster the bilateral relationship. In addition, China has repeatedly asserted claims over Taiwan, making it difficult for South Korea to conduct formal diplomacy with the island. Nonetheless, it is crucial for South Korea to gradually build and expand cooperation with Japan and Taiwan, accounting for geopolitical dynamics and economic considerations. By taking greater investments in its semiconductor industry and its regional partnerships, South Korea will be taking the initiative to facilitate dialogue with the two great superpowers and ultimately become a major actor in de-escalating tension between the East and the West, creating a more cooperative space in international relations.
Sandy Zheng is a MS candidate in Northeastern University’s Global Studies & International Relations program.