The Trump Administration’s foreign policy seriously tested the longstanding alliance between the United States and South Korea. Trump’s “America First” policy questioned the foundation of the alliance like its military relationship while assessing their relations based on cost-focused approach. Such policies from the Trump Administration have greatly alarmed the South Korean government who already experienced a significant backslash from China during the THAAD missile crisis. In this context, the newly elected Joe Biden is a chance for South Korea to reshape their alliance as significant changes in two nation’s relations seem inevitable. This article will first examine the expected Asia policy under the Biden Administration, analyze its implications on South Korea’s current issues, and lastly suggest policy recommendations for South Korea to adapt to the Biden’s new approach in Asia.
Biden’s Expected Asia Policy
The Biden Administration will combine some aspects of the Pivot to Asia strategy and those of the Trump administration. His Asia policy will primarily focus on the US’s strategy toward China.
First, the Biden Administration will pursue a hostile position toward China, similar to the tone of the Trump Administration. The Obama administration’s strategic containment approach toward China did not restrain China’s influence in the region; instead, China became blatantly aggressive and candid about its ambition to extend its influence, which sparked numerous conflicts as a result. In this sense, the Biden Administration will pressure China by building more concrete and effective coalitions with its traditional alliances (Japan, Korea, and Australia) while seeking new partners in the region such as India and ASEAN.
Second, the Biden Administration is likely to restore the global trade agreement like the CPTPP that was withdrawn during the Trump administration. This deal represents not only an economic move but also a political one to counter China who is looking to extend its economic and political influence in the pacific region through the RCEP.
Third, the Biden Administration will need to rebuild the military alliance in the region where the Chinese military presence and rapid modernization have reduced the United States military influence in Asia. To do so, the Biden Administration will have to change the rhetoric of the previous administration as President Trump downplayed its allies as free riders. Additionally, the United States will need to prepare for a situation where increase US military presence in the region might be necessary to counter growing Chinese military.
Implications for South Korea
The new Biden Administration will be a positive change for South Korea considering the administration appointed familiar figures from the Obama administration. In this regard, the South Korean government can expect the Biden Administration to negotiate forthcoming issues based on efforts to rebuild creditability and solidarity in US- Korea alliance. Such prospects will be a tremendous reassurance for South Korea especially in respect to the military burden sharing negotiation.
However, it does not necessarily mean the current issues that South Korea is presently facing will instantly be overcome. First, the Biden administration will expect South Korea to join the United States’ agenda against China in the region. Until now, South Korea has been hesitant to openly participate given that China is the South Korea’s largest trading partner and a vital player in the Korean peninsula peace process. Second, the Biden Administration might end the negotiation and talks that President Moon has built during the Trump administration. During his presidential campaign, President Biden implied that he will not meet with Kim Jung-un unless there has been significant progress in denuclearization. Hence, it is less probable that the United States and North Korea will have another bilateral talk in the near future.
In accordance with Biden’s expected policies on Asia and implication on issues that South Korea is facing, South Korea should consider following options. To begin with, South Korea should utilize multilateralism to address the North Korean issue. Since bilateral dialogue between North Korea and the United States seems improbable, South Korea should utilize multilateral settings like six party talks to persuade North Korea back on the negotiating table. The inclusion of China in this dialogue will be vital considering Chinese economic leverage and influences on North Korea. As North Korea is seeking to lift international sanctions and bans, using economic leverage would be more likely to persuade them to denuclearize.
Moreover, South Korea should seek opportunities to actively and proactively participate on global issues like climate change and sustainable development. Unlike the Trump Administration who belittled the role of international organization, the Biden Administration will look to retake its leadership in the international stage. Given such prospects and opportunities for South Korea to participate in G7, the Biden era would represent an auspicious moment to increase their position as a significant player in the international affairs. Furthermore, participation in the global economic treaties such as CPTPP would be a gateway for Korea in the midst of economic confrontation between the United States and China.
Lastly, Korea should look for new allies globally to support South Korea’s voices in the international scene. Growing support can help South Korea to pursue their global agenda like sustainable development initiatives without being affected by the confrontation between China and the United States. Nations from ASEAN and Latin America would be an ideal choice given their growing roles and potentials in the international arena. South Korea already has existing mediums such as ASEAN-ROK summit and FEALAC to enhance its relations with countries from these regions. In a period where two superpowers are fighting for global leadership, multilateralism is an option to consider for South Korea to mitigate the effects of this confrontation, and it can be possible solutions for its foreign policy dilemma under the Biden era.
Seunghyun Han is currently working as researcher/programme coordinator at Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea. Prior to his current position, he worked as a researcher under the global health economics division at National Evidence-based Health Care Collaborating Agency in South Korea, and as a researcher at FP Analytics under the Foreign Policy Group in Washington DC. He holds a M.A. degree in International Relations and Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
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