[VIEWPOINT]Interpreting a ‘balancing’ act

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[VIEWPOINT]Interpreting a ‘balancing’ act

What should Americans make of President Roh Moo-hyun’s declared intent to carve out a “balancing” role for South Korea?
President Roh’s description of that role was suggestive but ambiguous. Commentary out of Seoul has compounded the confusion. Some suggest the “balancing” rhetoric is merely “aspirational.” Others claim that it merely foreshadows the deployment of South Korea’s “soft power” to mediate or moderate conflicts in Northeast Asia in pursuit of a regional community “much like the European Union.” Still others see it as a harbinger of a more maneuverable and independent diplomacy, yet one anchored to a more equal partnership with the United States. Official U.S. comment has been spare and somewhat tart.
Can either the past or current geopolitical challenges help illuminate the future trajectory of South Korean foreign policy? Historically, South Korea has pursued three broad strategies toward the outside world: 1) isolation 2) a continental policy and 3) a maritime strategy.
Isolation is no longer a practical option in an age of globalization; in any event, North Korea arguably has pursued this alternative at a staggering cost to the welfare of its people.
For many decades, South Korea has pursued a maritime strategy, relying on a distant and “disinterested” power, the United States, to protect it from predatory powers closer to home. Yet, many in the current South Korean leadership harbor misgivings about this course.
Might then South Korean references to a “balancing” role herald a shift to a continental policy? Certainly there are hints of this in Korean policy. Seoul’s highest priority appears to be an accommodation with Pyongyang, and its policy instincts for fostering such an accommodation are closer to Beijing’s than Washington’s.
President Roh is pursuing his vision of Korea as the “hub” of a Northeast Asian economy through arrangements organized along pan-Asian rather than trans-Pacific lines; America does not figure prominently in these plans. New military ties are being explored with Beijing at a time when Seoul’s defense links with Washington are troubled.
The juxtaposition of growing public animosity toward Japan and greater official deference toward China suggests a sharpening asymmetry in Korean attitudes toward its maritime and continental neighbors. And it would not be unprecedented for Korea to “bandwagon” with China rather than “balance” against it. These are among the reasons why some Americans believe there is more to President Roh’s rhetoric about “balancing” than meets the eye.
But there is a more benign way to interpret Seoul’s motives. Middle powers tend to be accurate barometers of larger adjustments in the global or regional balance of power, and the Northeast Asian balance is obviously in flux. China is emerging as a major power in its own right. Japan is accelerating the pace at which it assumes off-shore security responsibilities. North Korea’s nuclear activities could provoke a wider nuclear “breakout” in the region.
Energy issues are fueling more intense competition for scarce supplies. Nationalism now trumps all ideologies in Asia, and new leaders seem increasingly inclined to tap into that sentiment when domestic support appears fragile. Above all, American policy has changed dramatically in the light of heightened fears of terrorism and new preoccupations in the Middle East and South Asia.
In this context, it is not particularly surprising that South Korea would consider ways to reposition itself to “hedge” against new uncertainties. An accommodation with the North would remove a threat and relieve the South’s dependence on the United States. Closer ties with China may assist its efforts to “soften up” North Korea while fending off U.S. pressure for sanctions. In addition, it offers commercial opportunities with the region’s fastest-growing market.
Keeping the U.S. alliance intact and U.S. military forces on the peninsula, though in less obtrusive locations, provides an “anchor to windward” in case South Korea’s hopeful estimates of North Korean and Chinese intentions prove excessively optimistic. In that case, increased spending to support a high-tech military “capable of independent self-defense” will prove to be a wise investment. And cultivating strategic options may discourage any of the great powers from taking Korea for granted.
From this perspective, hedging bets may simply be an exercise in prudence. Still, an intelligible strategy can be exceedingly difficult to execute. Few countries enjoy the luxury of being able to keep all options open. Others have choices too, and to govern is to choose.
As an American, I worry about the impact of Korea’s “balancing” rhetoric on the future of the alliance. It can certainly limp along for some time. The United States has invested much in it, acknowledges its substantial achievements and recognizes its residual value. For us too, it constitutes a “hedge” against uncertainties.
But recent talk about “balancing” comes against the backdrop of steady erosion in the perceived convergence of security interests that has long provided the foundation for the alliance. And Washington now tends to devote less attention to traditional alliances than to “coalitions of the willing.”
Whether Korea’s diplomatic maneuvers portend a decisive shift toward a continental policy or reflect an effort to maximize future strategic options, the acid test for the alliance still comes down to this: Can we fashion a coordinated policy toward Pyongyang? If we cannot, I fear the alliance will become an empty shell.

* The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is a professor at Stanford University.

by Michael H. Armacost
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