In the first month of his presidency, Joe Biden has worked hard to reach out to longtime allies of the US that were slighted during the Trump years. The US counts South Korea and Japan as two of its most trusted allies and has signaled to them that it hopes to work with the two nations to develop a trilateral strategy to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Biden also hopes for more trilateral cooperation in dealing the with growing power of China on the world stage.
For South Korea, they are an opportunity, but also a challenge. The deterioration of relations with Japan since President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017 appears to be the biggest challenge, but it pales in comparison to the challenge posed by growing competition between the US and China. Trade figures for 2020 explain why. China was the leading destination for South Korean exports, absorbing 25.8 percent of the total. The US was next at 14.5 percent. Next were Vietnam and Hong Kong, followed by fifth-placed Japan, which absorbed only 4.9 percent of South Korea’s exports. China is also the largest source of imports, but Japan rises to second place, with the US in third. South Korea runs a trade surplus with China and the US, but a deficit with Japan.
As a nation dependent on trade for its survival, South Korea cannot ignore China, its largest trading partner. It cannot ignore the US, its next largest trading partner with whom it has a close military alliance. Nor can it ignore Japan, which remains an important source of advanced technology. As a smaller percentage of South Korea’s trade, Japan’s importance continues to shrink. South Korea may not be able to ignore, it but it is not as important as China or the US.
The rise of China as an economic partner since the 1990s coincided with a slow but steady decline in the importance of Japan. This dynamic has played out in many other nations around the world. It has also affected the US, reducing its dominance in trade with many nations. The top trading partner for most nations in the world today is one of three places: China, the US, and the EU.
For South Korea, a collapse in the US-China relationship poses the most serious challenge to its prosperity and security. It needs amicable relations with both countries to keep trade flowing. The military alliance with the US has worked successfully for both nations, complaints from political fringes in both countries notwithstanding. The best approach for South Korea is to muddle through, hoping that relations between the US and China begin to warm or, at least, do not degenerate into a new cold war.
If the past is any guide, relations between the US and China will get worse before they get better. One way for South Korea to deal with the situation is to mediate between the two. This risks drawing the ire of both countries, but South Korea is too important to push away. The problem, rather, is that mediation is difficult because the conflict is structural. Chances of success are low.
Another way for South Korea to deal with the situation is repair relations with Japan and expand relations with a range of emerging countries. For all the tension between South Korea and Japan, both nations find themselves in a similar position. Both have strong economic relations with China and military alliances with the US. Politicians in both countries are loath to admit that they need each other, but cooler heads should push them to admit the obvious. They should do so because it is good for both, not because of pressure from Biden.
Among the top 15 export destinations, besides the US, only three others are outside Asia: Germany, Mexico, and Russia. Mexico, ranking 11th, is the only developing nation outside of Asia to rank in the top 15. As economic growth shifts away from China to developing nations with young and growing populations, South Korea will find new opportunities to reduce its dependence on the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the US markets. Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, and Turkey all have large populations and potential to grow into important economic partners for South Korea.
New initiatives may be difficult in the little more than a year left in President Moon’s term. Setting the stage for South Korea to expand and deepen its relationship with nations of growing importance would be a valuable accomplishment for his successor to build on.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.