Strategic values of light aircraft
The author, former head of the Defense Reform Office at the Ministry of National Defense, is a professor of international relations at Sookmyung Women’s University.
U.S. President Joe Biden is pushing for his Indo-Pacific strategy through his first virtual summit on March 12 with leaders of Japan, Australia and India — members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). The new U.S. president abandoned his predecessor’s policies for the most part but is holding on to the security policy with China.
A number of policy reviews by the U.S. government emphasizes that the United States must methodically contain China’s challenges on the economic, hi-tech, space and cyber fields. Washington’s move to establish a coalition based on the Quad rather than taking action on its own stems from the weakening power of the United States on global issues.
Such drastic changes in the global security environments are sending the wrong messages to South Korean strategists. They believe that South Korea must strike a delicate balance between the United States and China and that this is a possible option. However, as countless cases have proven in the past, there are limits to applying the balance of power theory into reality because the so-called “equidistant diplomacy,” based on the concept of straddling between two powers, can send the wrong signals to allies and potential adversaries. Politicians must keep in mind that South Korea’s intentional distancing with America will not necessarily lead to an accumulation of China’s trust with Korea.
Korea is at a crossroads. Located on the frontline of Sino-U.S. confrontation, the country must not confine itself to its small territory and inland seas anymore. In international politics, a country’s role determines its stature. South Korea must re-establish its new vision as a global state beyond North Korea. The debate over the introduction of a light aircraft carrier for South Korea amid the rapidly shifting security environment is not just a matter of weapons system. It must serve as a symbol of South Korea — and send a message that it advances to the world.
The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy can hardly succeed without South Korea. After going halfway around the world to the west over the last decade, China has built its “One Belt, One Road.” Now, it has turned to the east to extend the “Belt and Road” strategy up to the Aleutian Islands and the Arctic Sea. Korean waters are the starting point of China’s new maritime challenge.
Chinese drones have long traced not only the Cheonghae unit, which is deployed to safeguard a strategic waterway in the Middle East, but also Korean destroyers participating in U.S.-led Rimpac drills. Japan still calls a light aircraft carrier as a “multi-purpose operation destroyer” to brace for the future in a flexible manner. If South Korea acquires a light carrier strike group, it will not only help safeguard the Northern Sea Route, but also be seen as a sign of South Korea reinforcing its alliance with the United States that has to confront a strategic competitor.
A participant in the Quad, India has never insisted on enforcing a military blockade on China. Thanks to its flexibility, India not only could export its vaccines to other countries but also could strengthen its strategic position. That’s a stark contrast with South Korea still reluctant to even use such a phrase as Indo-Pacific strategy. In a summit with former U.S. President Donald Trump in May 2019, President Moon Jae-in expressed his will to find a common denominator between his New Southward Policy and Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. If Moon cannot withdraw his three pledges to China — no additional Thaad missile deployments, no joining of a broader U.S. missile defense system and no Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance — South Korea’s acquisition of a light carrier strike group could serve as an effective card to strike a balance between policies.
If South Korea has a carrier strike group, it will also help correct the imbalance between the U.S.-Japan alliance and the Korea-U.S. alliance. Both Japan and China have set up their military base in the Republic of Djibouti, a country on the eastern coast of Africa. Operation of a light aircraft carrier is impossible without drawing up maritime and global strategies. South Korea managed to survive over the past seven decades trying to contain provocations from North Korea, but it cannot rest on such a luck — no major military battles — anymore. The world is asking what choice South Korea wants to make. If the Moon administration upholds carving our destiny on our own as its core values, it must demonstrate capabilities to take risks.
Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, coped with pirates’ seizure of American ships by sending expeditionary forces to the waters off Africa in the face of opposition from Congress. He argued that if a newborn nation had not manifested a strong determination to pirates, it would inevitably have to suffer more trials and challenges. South Korea’s carrier strike group can serve as an emblem of the country’s countervailing strategy. The government must let the world know that it has the strong will to go after enemies wherever they are if the country faces a crisis.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.