The Quad dilemma
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
South Korea faces the dilemma of whether it should join the Quadrilateral Coalition, comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, to contain China after the first summit among the four leaders of those countries on March 12.
Foreign policy pundits in Washington has been sending the serious message that America must actively use the Quad to contain China’s rise and prioritize Japan. On Feb. 24, Foreign Affairs posted an article entitled “Japan is the New Leader of Asia’s Liberal Order.” It argued that Washington must learn to follow its longtime ally Japan in its Indo-Pacific policy. In September, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, issued a report concluding that the U.S.-Japan alliance is not strong enough to counter China’s increasing military might. Similar reports emphasizing the strategic importance of the Quad and America’s alliance with Japan have been published by other Washington-based think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institution.
As these Washington-based think tanks have long acted as sherpas for U.S. foreign affairs, the Biden administration’s next steps can be predicted. Biden has chosen Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as his first guest to the White House next month.
Where does Seoul fall in the eyes of the new tenants of the White House? The phone conversations among the leaders of Korea, Japan and Australia with Biden can give some ideas. Biden called the U.S.-Japan alliance the “cornerstone” for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. He called the U.S.-Australia alliance “an anchor.”
Biden referred to America’s alliance with South Korea as the “linchpin” for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. While Biden found Japan and Australia partners in America’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea was restricted to being a partner in Northeast Asia.
Such rhetorical differences were not expressed during the administrations of Presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama or Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump in 2017. During summits, the U.S. referred to its alliance with South Korea as being central in the Asia-Pacific. But over the years, the traditional alliance came to be limited to the Northeast Asian framework.
Many diplomatic experts advise Seoul to join the Quad coalition to upgrade its bilateral ties with the United States so that it can be appreciated for its role in Indo-Pacific affairs. Discussions on the Quad agenda are not restricted to security, but also include natural disasters and infectious diseases like the Covid-19. Therefore, if South Korea joins the Quad plus, it would earn sure backing from the four nations in case of emergencies.
Still, the Moon Jae-in administration cannot make up its mind because of Beijing. Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said the country was open to cooperating with any regional coalitions that value the international norms of transparency, openness and inclusiveness. He could be implying Seoul’s intention of joining the Quad, but “inclusiveness” was attached as a condition. If the coalition’s primary design is to contain a certain nation — China — it would be a “selective,” not “inclusive,” body. It could be a polite excuse for not joining the Quad. Seoul cannot easily commit to an action that can irk Beijing after experiencing the harsh consequences of the installation of a U.S. anti-missile system a few years ago.
Should we side with Washington or keep a moderate distance from both the U.S. and China? The answer is laid out already. We can join the Quad, but build a strong rationale to minimize any negative effects. Quad was founded in 2007, but became inactive from the following year under Beijing-friendly governments in Japan and Australia. It was revived under the Shinzo Abe government in 2017 amid the fast rise of China. Although the design of the coalition is clear, Beijing has not taken any retaliatory actions against Japan and Australia. Instead, it has been courting Tokyo and Canberra to boost economic exchanges with China. Therefore, Seoul can protest if Beijing finds fault with South Korea’s joining of the Quad.
Isaac Newton famously said, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” If Seoul does not learn to be tactful, it could slip further behind on the U.S. alliance priority list.