Changing the geopolitics of the peninsula
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Vladmir Putin’s cruel and unjustified invasion of Ukraine is a global event. As Ukrainians fight from the rubble to defend their cities and their freedom, the world’s most important powers are being forced to cast their lot. Do they stand with the powerful or with the righteous? Or do they waffle and hedge on the hope that geopolitics will leave them alone? The Moon Jae-in administration’s naive hope for a peace mechanism and stubborn insistence on strategic ambiguity will now wash away like a sandcastle at high tide. The next government will have to face four new realities and take a stand accordingly.
First, the Sino-Russian alignment is here to stay. Some China scholars argue that Beijing must have been surprised and embarrassed by Putin’s attack. I have no doubt that the Chinese scholars those China experts talk to were surprised and embarrassed. But when Putin and Xi Jinping held their all-day strategy session before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February, the topic was geopolitics and countering the West. The two leaders had already held 29 intensive bilateral summits and agreed in their joint statement in Beijing that their bilateral relationship would have “no limits.” The two leaders are bonded by strong ideological underpinnings, fear of internal dissent and disdain for the democratic world and American alliances. Xi was probably as surprised as Putin at how badly the invasion has gone for Russia, but it is difficult to imagine that Putin would have deceived a leader as critical to his strategic position as Xi. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s calls to his Ukrainian counterpart and reiteration of China’s respect for sovereignty under the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” may suggest a brokering role for Beijing, but at best Wang will convey Russian demands for Ukrainian neutrality and a halt to NATO expansion, which are both non-starters.
Chinese state media has been completely on Russia’s side, which is an indication of the real thinking in Zhongnanhai. Meanwhile, senior Biden administration officials tell me that they expect China to do whatever it can short of triggering secondary sanctions to ensure that Putin does not fail and leave China alone to face the West. Beijing is already allowing North Korea to evade UN Security Council Sanctions and Russia is of far greater strategic importance to China.
Second, this growing evidence of Sino-Russian strategic cooperation will add even greater friction to China’s relations with the United States, Europe and leading democracies in Asia. The Biden administration will face a difficult challenge with China and Russia both simultaneously challenging U.S. alliances. But Beijing’s tacit support for Putin will only reinforce the validity of Biden’s premise that there is a growing confrontation between authoritarian and democratic forces. Those urging moderation towards Beijing in the United States will have an even more difficult time as stories emerge of Chinese economic and technical support for Moscow at the same time Russian artillery is destroying whole suburbs and city blocks of innocent civilians. This is not 1940, when the Axis and the Allies began squaring off for World War II —Beijing and Washington are not looking for war and must manage relations responsibly — but the friction in the U.S.-China relationship will likely get worse.
Third, the autocracies already recognize this. Pyongyang and Napyidaw (Myanmar) were quick to publicly come to Putin’s side and to condemn NATO and the United States. The imposition of unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia gives these dictatorships the hope that they can now get greater support from China and Russia to avoid economic pressure themselves. More menacing is the growing acceleration of ballistic missile tests by Pyongyang, no doubt taking advantage of the geopolitical shifts underway. Some in Seoul may think Korea can counter this trend by maintaining good ties with Moscow and Beijing to keep leverage on North Korea, but there is absolutely zero evidence that this theory ever worked in the real world for the Moon administration. It will prove even less effective and more costly for Korea’s position now.
Fourth, the leading democracies are aligning more closely around the world. In a real contrast to the disastrous diplomacy of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Biden administration is drawing high praise for the way it has pulled NATO and Asian allies and partners into a global coalition to impose crippling economic costs on Putin. When I was sent to Taiwan along with other former officials by the Biden White House last week, we heard clearly that Tsai Ing-wen’s government recognizes the powerful example of this global coalition for Taiwan’s own security. The same would be true for South Korea. Deterring and possibly one-day rebuilding North Korea will require global resources and resolve, and the unprecedented alignment of democratic allies around the world in the current crisis should be recognized in Seoul as an asset for Korean strategy – not a liability or complication, which is how the Blue House seems to view it.
Korea’s stance in the current Ukraine crisis suggests that many in Seoul may be missing the significance of these four tectonic shifts. While the outpouring of support from private citizens and actresses like Lee Young-ae has been inspiring, the Blue House initially dithered and hedged and still has not followed the examples of Germany, Australia or others in sanctioning individual Russian leaders and providing military assistance to Ukraine. Politicians also stumbled on Ukraine in the presidential race. Lee Jae-min’s statement that Ukraine’s president was to blame for the Russian attack was obviously an embarrassing slip that he had to retract. Even Yoon Suk-yeol sounded a bit cold-hearted when he made the legitimate point that Korea was not Ukraine because of the strength of the U.S.-Korea alliance.
What both candidates — and President Moon — should have said all along is that even small countries stood with Korea in 1950 and Korea — above all nations — will now stand forthrightly with the people of Ukraine.
Over the past five years Moon Jae-in’s government isolated Korea from the growing unity of the democratic world. The new government needs to take a hard-headed assessment of whether strategic ambiguity is viable any longer.