Time to consolidate our allianceU.S. President Joe Biden is moving fast to build up an allied front against China. He will be holding a video summit conference on Friday with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan — dubbed Quad — to counter China’s aggressive influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The summit takes place less than 50 days after he was sworn in and a month after the foreign ministerial meeting of Quad countries last month to underscore the priority in Washington’s anti-Beijing policy.
Despite the imminent geopolitical changes around the Korean Peninsula, Korea has little say for now. Seoul has been sitting on the fence, taking the side of neither Washington nor Beijing. There have been discussions of including Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam in the coalition. But Seoul remains lukewarm. How long Korea can maintain ambiguity under the name of “balanced diplomacy” is unknown.
The Biden administration places upmost urgency in containing China in its external policy. It campaigns for a united front and networking with allies and partner states. After the Quad summit, U.S. State and Defense Secretaries will visit Tokyo and Seoul. The move suggests Washington envisions challenging Beijing through the Indo-Pacific framework and traditional tripartite alliance with Seoul and Tokyo. It has expedited the conclusion of a defense cost-sharing pact.
If Seoul continues with a vague stance, it could find itself isolated in the new global order. The security guidance announced by the White House on March 3 pointed out China as a “challenge” to democracy. State Secretary Antony Blinken singled out China as “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technology power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.” Japan, Australia, India and European countries have backed the stance by joining the U.S.-led front. The anti-Beijing front is not a matter of hegemonic struggle between the two superpowers, but a contest of values. There is a move to develop the Quad or Quad+ into a NATO-like defense alliance in Asia.
Most predict that U.S. secretaries will call on Seoul to join the campaign against China in the 2+2 meeting between foreign and defense ministers of Korea and America next week. Korea cannot easily go along with movement, given the colossal share of trade with China in its export-reliant economy.
If there is strong trust between allies, Seoul can win some understanding from Washington. There are many ways Korea can join the front. Korea must make its choice based on its dignity, principle and practical cause, instead of being dragged into the front.