The South China Sea is a litmus test for South Korean grand strategy, which would benefit greatly by reorienting away from an inward obsession with North Korea and instead turning outward, to attend to the destabilizing trends in its neighborhood. Korea’s history is one of victimization at the hands of great power competition; avoiding that fate should be its raison d’etre.
For those unaware, this article is part three in an ongoing debate with Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University (and a friend by proxy). The first part was an argument I advanced last month, stating that South Korea should not remain silent about aggression in the South China Sea. Kelly’s response, over at The Interpreter, was a smart explanation of the status quo in South Korea, concluding that it’s in South Korea’s—and the region’s—interest for it to stay mum on the South China Sea. I have minor quibbles with a few of Kelly’s supporting points, but the biggest source of debate between us may be an implied one, about the type of grand strategy that would best serve South Korea.
Kelly argues that South Korean silence amid Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea buys something quite valuable: Chinese abandonment of North Korea. Alas, I’m not so sure. I have no doubt that South Korea hopes—even believes—an ostrich approach to the South China Sea will curry favor with China on North Korea. But such a hope is logically and empirically unfounded.
First, there is scant evidence that Chinese foreign policy is based on anything other than cold calculations of its expanding interests. Kelly is correct to point out that Sino-North Korean relations are at their historical nadir, but that’s not the same as abandoning North Korea, a position that would require allowing North Korea to collapse. China has always been concerned that a North Korean collapse would unleash an obscene refugee flow into China, and South Korean complicity in the South China Sea doesn’t alleviate that concern.