Seoul shouldn’t give up strategic ambiguity over joining Quad
Published: Mar 11, 2021 10:30 PM
First Quad summit Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

First Quad summit Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

South Korea's presidential office, Cheong Wa Dae said on Wednesday that the country will consider the issue of whether to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as Quad between the US, Japan, India and Australia, in a "transparent, open and inclusive" manner.

South Korea's attitude toward the Quad is obviously more positive than before. In September 2020, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha reacted negatively about joining the US-led Quad, saying that "We don't think anything that automatically shuts out, and is exclusive of, the interests of others is a good idea."

But we also need to notice that South Korea has its own conditions - "transparent, open and inclusive." This shows that Seoul hopes the Quad will be a more open group instead of an exclusive one that targets China. However, it is hard to tell whether these conditions can be satisfied. It is still unknown whether South Korea's understanding of transparency, openness and inclusiveness is consistent with that of the US. But at least we can say that Seoul's attitude toward the Quad is a step forward.

The US will hold its first leaders-level meeting of the Quad on Friday. The meeting is regarded as a new level of the four countries' so-called political determination to balance together against China's influence. After the meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit South Korea. It's expected that they will persuade Seoul to join the Quad and add further pressure. 

Specifically, during the visit, the US side may pursue the final steps needed to conclude the agreement on defense cost-sharing for signature. The US may also discuss policies related to the Korean peninsula, China and the whole of Northeast Asia with South Korea. Besides, Washington may also discuss the Quad and the upcoming G7 summit with Seoul.

These may explain why South Korea has shown positive changes in its attitude toward the Quad, and the above-mentioned issues may be a part of the US' package deal of inviting South Korea into the group.

Those who support South Korea joining the Quad believe that it would strengthen the country's role in regional and global affairs, and a "Quad+" would be a grouping based on shared values, rather than explicitly standing in opposition to China. Indeed, South Korea has always wanted to play a bigger role on the international stage and it also wants to join the G7. Joining the Quad can also strengthen South Korea's security ties with the US, Japan, India and Australia.

However, joining the Quad has its pros and cons. What is sensitive is that the Quad is an informal security group countering China, and South Korea knows this as well. Essentially speaking, the Quad is a small anti-China group. Thus, in order to persuade South Korea, the US will definitely include the signature of agreement on defense cost-sharing into the package deal and make Seoul believe that it will gain benefits.

However, joining the Quad will inevitably damage the just restored strategic mutual trust between China and South Korea. China's State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited South Korea in November 2020 and the two sides reached 10 consensuses including launching the China-South Korea "2+2" dialogue on diplomacy and security. These are all hard-won results. If Seoul joins the Quad, it will destroy such mutual trust. It must think it over rationally and thoroughly. South Korea has set up several conditions such as "transparent, open and inclusive," which can be seen as some room to maneuver.

In terms of the Quad, it is a better choice for South Korea to stick to strategic ambiguity, but it may be hard now. In 2020, Seoul showed its negative attitude, which was in fact a vague attitude. Today, due to considerations including relations with the US, the costs for hosting US troops and participating in the G7, South Korea may have to make a choice and drop its strategic ambiguity.

Seoul must think twice. China's official attitude toward the Quad is negative and we generally believe that the Quad is aimed at China, as well as a very important supporter of the US' implementation of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. South Korea's attitude toward the Quad used to be negative, and the major reason is that it was concerned about China's reactions. Now, Seoul has changed its attitude because it may also enjoy balance between Beijing and Washington.

The author is an associate professor with the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and a senior researcher with the Pangoal Institute. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn