South China Sea and US-South Korea Alliance

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel urged Seoul to “speak out” about the territorial dispute over the South China Sea, it was reported on June 3. This is the first time that Washington has demanded an official stance from Seoul publicly over the issues that might cause an armed conflict between the U.S. and China in their pursuit of hegemonic control. Russel stated, in principle, that the Republic of Korea should get involved in the issue “… not in self-interest, but [to speak] in support of universal principles and the rule of law.” This is highly doubtful, since the underlying message is a demand that asks Seoul to give up its strategic ambiguity and join the anti-China coalition.

South China Sea has the fourth largest deposit of petroleum and natural gas in the world; not to mention its strategic value as the largest hub of naval traffic routes. The U.S., which supports freedom of navigation in the region, took China’s effort to create the artificial island and militarize this body of water as a serious challenge, spiking up the tension. Seoul and Washington, in their joint statement last year (heads of Department of State and Defense meeting, aka 2 + 2), already issued a statement that “emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and stability, ensuring maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” Seoul’s stance, which supports the status quo of the South China Sea issue, is quite different from that of Beijing, which claims the “exclusive territorial claim.”

Washington is not oblivious to this, yet its suspicion of the Beijing-Seoul alliance, even though President Park will be visiting Washington on June 16, might have had something to do with its demand to “speak out.” Yet the Ministry of Foreign Affairs jumps to quell the speculation, stating only that, “The Russel remark] is not an urging of a new role or an action from us.” Needless to say, the sales pitch remains unconvincing, and the reality that Seoul has to pick a side does not show a healthy relationship between the two allies.

Acting in partnership on various global issues is certainly good for Seoul and Washington, but they can’t always agree on everything. Washington was opposed to the idea of Seoul joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but the opposition was a diplomatic failure. The issue of the South China Sea is drastically different from that of the terminal high-altitude area defense, which was directly related to our security issue. During her visit, President Park will have her work cut out for her; she will need to provide reassurance of the sturdiness of the traditional military alliance we have with the U.S., all the while solving complex diplomatic problems while considering the international laws and the national interest.

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