Thaad fallout needs to serve as a “wakeup call” for Seoul: Daalder
An upcoming visit by the top U.S. diplomat and defense chief to Seoul this week is a sign that the Joe Biden administration “wants to repair the relationship with its most important allies,” said Ivo Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Daalder sat for a videoconference interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily and JoongAng Ilbo last Wednesday, ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s scheduled weeklong trip to Japan and Korea.
He said that Seoul should be seriously considering the Quadrilateral Dialogue, or Quad, a security cooperation mechanism between the United States, Japan, India and Australia, seen as a way to contain China.
“If you’re sitting in Seoul, you’d say, wouldn’t it make sense if I am part of this discussion since our views and our perspectives are a little closer to this alignment than it is to China?” said Daalder. “Now, I don’t think the U.S. or the Quad says you need to choose us or them, I don’t think that’s smart, but finding ways to collaborate more closely probably is a good idea.”
He noted that the fallout over the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system, resulting in Beijing's economic retaliation against Seoul, should be a “wakeup call” for South Korea to ask, “Are we going to let the Chinese determine what we needed to do for our own defense, or are we going to work together with our allies?”
He added that the Biden administration is expected to “start a dialogue” with Korea to find an understanding on where common interests and values lie and on “how we might cooperate and compete, and if necessary, confront China.”
Blinken and Austin are set to arrive in Seoul Wednesday and hold two-plus-two meetings with their Korean counterparts the next day.
Daalder previously served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013 under the Barack Obama administration and served as a director for European affairs in the National Security Council under the Bill Clinton administration.
The report, helmed by Daalder, advises that the United States should prioritize reestablishing a strong trilateral security cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and for Quad partners to consider how to eventually include Seoul in their dialogue. It also proposes to create an Asian Nuclear Planning Group, bringing Australia, Japan, and South Korea into the U.S. nuclear planning processes as a part of multilateral deterrence and trust-building efforts in Asia.
The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are scheduled to visit Tokyo and Seoul. What can we expect from this trip?
I think it’s yet another signal in a long list of signals by the Biden administration that it wants to repair the relationship with its most important allies, whereas in previous years, the emphasis of an administration may have gone to European allies first. So I think it is significant that the first trip that the secretaries of state and defense are taking together would be to Asia, to Seoul, to Tokyo.
Q. Biden administration officials made it clear that the U.S. would stand up for its values when talking about policy on China. How do you forecast the intensity of the U.S.-China conflict under the Biden administration?
Biden and the administration believe that democracies, when well run, are better able to provide for the people than autocracies [...] While we won’t compromise on human rights and democracy and the rule of law, it doesn’t mean that we are absolutists in this view and there is no other way we can deal with countries who don’t respect those issues.
The point is we should cooperate where we can, compete where we must and confront where necessary.
Q. One principle on China which U.S. Secretary of State Blinken made public is “approaching China from a position of strength.” Do you think the Biden administration will expect a larger role from Korea?
I think when Blinken and the administration talk about competing from a position of strength, they first and foremost mean internal strength, a strong economy, competitive education, advanced research and development and technologies, a strong military, a confident and well-functioning democracy.
The second strength the United States has, particularly in the competition with China or Russia, is it's allies. It has friends, it has countries where we’ve had long, respectful, coordinated close relationships, whereas China has one ally — North Korea. The United States has 55 allies. There is a belief that working closely with our allies--agreeing on common strategies, agreeing on common polices--gives us an advantage in a competition with China. So yes, the United States will look toward South Korea to see how we can work together on issues of trade, on issues of technology, on issues of security, in order to make us strong enough to compete effectively with China.
Q. The Korean government is keeping strategic ambiguity on some issues amid the Sino-U.S. clash, such as joining the pressure campaign against China over Huawei or partaking in an expanded Quad. What will be the Biden administration’s position on this kind of approach from Seoul?
I think the Biden administration will engage in intense dialogue. It started already with the phone calls that President Moon [Jae-in] and President Biden have had, the various phone calls that the foreign ministers and defense ministers and the national security advisers, the negotiations we’ve had over the basing rights and now the upcoming visit by Secretaries Blinken and Austin to start a dialogue in understanding where our common interests and our common values lie, what common strategies we might be pursuing and how we might cooperate and compete, and if necessary confront China.
Clearly, the South Korean government has a particular view on these issues and that will be a central part in how the U.S. will try to develop a strategy. Ultimately, what we want is a strategy where we work in common. I’m confident that the U.S. and South Korea have many issues in common, even when it comes to China, and will try to figure out where those commonalties are, understand each other’s sensitivities, making sure that as we develop common strategies and common policies, that we are aware of such sensitivities. But at the same time, we will also try to persuade and work together toward common strategy as we did in the past, years before the [Donald] Trump administration, and we will continue do so in future. There may be times we don’t agree. That happens in the best of families, and the reality is that we will all be trying to overcome those disagreements. But at the same time, whatever disagreement exists should not necessarily translate into a complete break in the relationship, as there were times in the last four years where we seemed to get closer to those kind of issues.
Q. What do you think about Korea joining an extended Quad mechanism?
As we recommended in the report, Quad countries should be open to the possibility of a South Korean interest in this issue. I think there is an interest on the part of some. I don’t know exactly where in the administration people are themselves, but there is an interest in thinking about expanding the dialogue that the four Quad countries have to include South Korea, if that is something that our Quad allies, particularly the Indians and the Australians — we know what the Japanese think, we’d also want the Japanese to be comfortable with it — and if it’s something that Seoul would be interested in.
Could it happen tomorrow? No, it’s too early. But if you are sitting in Seoul and you’re looking at what’s happening with Quad and minsters have already met and there is talk of a leader meeting, the first leader meeting of the Quad, if you’re sitting in Seoul, you’d say, wouldn’t it make sense if I am part of these discussions since our views and our perspectives are a little closer to this alignment than they are to China? Now I don’t think the U.S. or the Quad says you need to choose us or them, I don’t think that’s smart, but finding ways to collaborate more closely probably is a good idea.
Q. The economic retaliation from China triggered by the deployment of the Thaad system badly damaged Korean businesses, and some Koreans believed the United States could have done more to soften the blow.
Clearly that episode was difficult and it probably wasn’t handled as well as it could have been, but to start off, when you think about who’s at fault, the answer is clear, it is China [...] China is now capable and willing to use its economic muscle to express its political and strategic interest. So this should in part be a wakeup call, including in South Korea, that says wait a minute, are we going to let the Chinese determine what we need to do for our own defense, or are we going to work together with our allies. Yes, in making those decision, thinking through what the economic consequences are will be one of the issues, but ultimately, it is important for the allies to understand that we need to take the measures that are necessary for our defense.
Q. The damaged Seoul-Tokyo relations will be a hinderance to Washington’s vision of trilateral cooperation in the region. Do you think the Biden administration would intervene in some way?
I think that the Biden administration will be exceedingly interested in improving trilateral relations, starting with an improvement between Korea and Japan. This is something that Tony Blinken himself, when he was deputy secretary, spent a lot of time on in trilateral negotiations and made a lot of progress in the relationship as such, which has deteriorated over the last few years. So yes, I think the administration is going to be exceedingly active in trying to help overcome the division and bring the parties together. They believe that a strong bilateral relationship and a strong trilateral security relationship is the best way to deal with the threats that we face, starting with North Korea. And the divisions between your country and Japan’s are an opening to the North Koreans to exploit to their own benefit and to our disadvantage.
Q. What are your thoughts on the Biden administration’s reported push for a NATO-style alliance in Asia?
I’m not a big fan of an Asian NATO. NATO is pretty unique. It belongs where it is, it was born in a particular time and it has evolved in a particular way. I think what the United States is interested in, and I think what most of the countries and its allies in the region are interested in is greater cooperation, not only bilaterally with the United States, but multilaterally among them. And the United States — as it is in NATO — it’s the core of this system. You take the U.S. out and the thing falls away. Well, in Asia, it’s even more direct because of the nature of the security arrangements. But there is in the effort to have a trilateral security relationship between Japan, Korea and the United States and the Quad, and this idea we proposed of an Asian Nuclear Planning Group, it is to say to use the U.S. as the core to bring everybody together around a set of issues.
Q. Is there a chance that such security blocs could push China, Russia and North Korea together in a counter-alliance structure reminiscent of the Cold War era?
Yeah, I think that’s a fear that informs U.S. policy. I think there is no drive here to create a Cold War counter-alliance, in part because I see the Biden administration having an interest in maintaining a cooperative relationship with China on the issues it can cooperate on. Yes there is a competition going on, and yes coordination among allies is meant to help that competition, but I think the administration is not interested in creating a Cold War confrontation with China. It is not particularly interested creating in a Cold War standoff between the two sides. It is interested in building strength for a healthy competition, and it sees allies as key parts of that. It’s tricky, it’s easy for people to misunderstand that. So the hesitancy we see at times from Moon government on these issues is understandable because it doesn’t want to feed that narrative. But at the same time, there are lots of reasons for us to cooperate and work together, there’s a lot of reasons for us to have stronger relationships among ourselves, and we should be able to do that without necessarily falling into that trap that everything becomes a Cold War zero-sum standoff, which no one is particularly interested in having.
Q. You have also addressed in your recent report the question of whether or not U.S. allies can truly rely on a U.S. nuclear umbrella — a reliance which has been broken under the Trump administration. What steps will be needed to rebuild mutual trust?
Trust needs to be earned, and the United States needs to start earning back that trust. It’s one of the reasons on the nuclear side, we said the U.S. needs to bring our Asian and European allies much closer into our nuclear planning process, when we are developing our doctrine, when we are developing our strategies, to have an input and understanding from our allies. And one way to do that is this Nuclear Planning Group, which worked extremely well to build trust at a time of deep distrust between the United States and Europe on these issues back in the 1960s and 1970s.
We think we could do something like that as well, in part in order to convince those people who in Korea are saying what we need is our own nuclear deterrence, to say, no actually, you probably aren’t as well off as being a part of our system, and to have that understanding. You do that through dialogue, you do that through engagement, to bring allies into that conversation. The idea here, is this is a process that will take a lot of time and it starts with making the right phone calls, saying the right things, negotiating the right agreement, as we have just gotten the Special Measures Agreement.
Q. Any advice on how the Korean side can build up confidence with the U.S.?
I think engaging in open and respectful dialogue on issues, if there are disagreements on policy toward North Korea, or policy toward China, to do this openly and to have that as a discussion, to start from the basis of we are in this together [...] And if we faced another Thaad-like decision, how do we do this in a way that builds confidence rather than distrust, which is in some way what the Thaad decision did. There will always be differences, and there will be political differences in Korea, as there are in the United States, that’s what democracies are about. But trying to figure out how to make the best and easiest common approaches to policy is the best way to do that, and for Korea to be open and a part of that and to forge internal agreement on the steps that are necessary and not to use the relationship with the United States as a Bogey man, in a way that the previous administration may have done with our allies.
Q. What sort of approach do you see the Biden administration taking on Pyongyang that may be different or similar to past U.S. governments, and could it possibly escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula?
Any tensions that get escalated will be escalated because the North Koreans decide to escalate them [...] I think that the administration is trying to look at what lessons can we learn from the past, including the efforts of the Trump administration, which of course departed from previous practice in some important instances, but what can we learn from that, and to come up with a strategy that first and foremost brings together South Korea, Japan and the United States. At least those three countries which are most directly affected — our forces, our countries, our three people are most directly affected by what happens. I do think there is an incentive to see how can we convince China to help and to do more because it after all has more leverage over the North than any other country, and trying to figure out a way to bring the Chinese along will be important. But ultimately the focus will be on having the full and complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the elimination of the threat the North poses to South Korea in the first instance, to Japan in the second instance and to us, who are present militarily and economically in so many other ways.
Q. The Moon government has focused on improvement in the inter-Korean relationship. Do you think this stance could be a potential source of conflict between Seoul and Washington?
Not necessarily, if the improvement in inter-Korean relations is tied into a strategy for reducing threats that exists at the same time, I think there is a possibility of complementarity. There is a carrot and stick approach; I think there is a longstanding American tradition to believe in strength and the capacity to counter a threat militarily, but at the same time to engage diplomatically with the country. In the 1960s and 1970s in the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the era of détente and deterrence, I think a mixed strategy that looks at cooperation and confrontation, engagement and dialogue, and deterrence and defense is something you will find in most American strategies. It’s rare to have only confrontation or only engagement.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]