No challenge, no opportunity
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The author is an editorial writer and senior researcher at the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo. Japan became a global power after winning the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Japan took on the Russian Empire a decade after its triumph in the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Japan, with its imperial ambitions, stopped expansionist Russia in Manchuria and the East Sea. Russian troops retreated from the Liaodong Peninsula to as far as Harbin. Its proud Baltic Fleet was nearly destroyed at the Battle of Tsushima between Korea and southern Japan.
Western powers had vied heavily to expand their colonies across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In the underdeveloped Far East, Japan rose as the sole formidable Asian power against Western powers. Japan, which had eagerly accepted Western institutions and styles, stood next to the British empire, France, Germany and the United States. Though humbled after losing the Second World War, Japan remains a key player on the international political stage and an ally to America. Washington refers to its alliance with Japan as the “cornerstone” of U.S. security interests in Asia
In the meantime, Korea was forcibly annexed to Japan and devastated by the 1950-1953 Korean War. But today, the country has ascended to a respectable position on the international stage. Together with Japan, South Korea was invited to the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, in June.
China is a superpower in Asia, but remains a state-controlled autocracy. To democratic states, the country is regarded as a bully who intimidates smaller states or buys them over with its riches. It has been muscling its way into the East and South China Seas and expanding its influence over the Indo-Pacific. It is in a different category from South Korea, where freedom of expression and the press is guaranteed. China is a partner in economic terms, and an important one, but can be seen as a political adversary with Russia and North Korea.
South Korea joined three other members from the Asia-Pacific — Australia, New Zealand and Japan — at the NATO Summit. The summit has been restricted to members and aspirant members, but the Asia-Pacific’s four (AP4) were invited as strategic partner states. South Korea made the fourth member after Australia, New Zealand and Japan in recognition of its capabilities and value in contributing to international peace and order.
The summit among AP4 came under spotlight during the NATO summit. AP4 was first mentioned by U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken in April. The role of AP4 could be expected to work together with the U.S. and NATO to safeguard freedom and order in the Indo-Pacific region and supplement the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. Kim Yeoul-soo, chief of the Security Strategy Office at the Korea Institute of Military Affairs, observed that the NATO summit had discussed the role and contribution of AP4 in upholding world peace and prosperity.
But South Korea’s activity on the AP4 could stoke conflict with China. Beijing strongly protested the four nations being invited to the NATO summit, as it means “encircling China.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently went on a tour across five Mekong countries of Southeast Asia that included Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand. Chinese President Xi Jinping attacked NATO while chairing a virtual foreign ministerial meeting of BRICs by calling for resistance to collective and ideological contest.
NATO’s position on China is clear. The Western military alliance found China’s ambitions and “coercive policies” challenging the Western bloc’s “interests, security, and values.” The NATO strategic concept published in Madrid found Beijing “strives to subvert the rule-based international order, including in the space, cyber, and maritime domains.”
In a separate AP4 summit meeting, President Yoon Suk-yeol proposed joint actions versus global security threats. Yoon’s remarks could be interpreted as Seoul’s willingness to cooperate with the Western security alliance to defend an international order based on universal values of freedom and human rights. It is a sharp departure from the Moon Jae-in government, which was mute on human rights so as not to upset China and North Korea. The shift would pose new opportunities and challenges for South Korea along with the risk of conflict with China.
Should South Korea take the risk to be a global player? South Korea’s diplomatic and security role should not be restricted to the Korean Peninsula. The frontline on international conflict has been shifting. In the past, the demilitarized zone of the Korean Peninsula and the Berlin Wall had been the frontline of the battle between democracy and communism. Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Korea’s DMZ and antiterrorism stood as the frontline.
Today, a new front has emerged. The free democracy front is pitted against authoritarian states of China and Russia, while the frontlines are expanding to the Pacific encompassing the East and South China Seas and Indian Ocean.
Aside from the security battleground, the tech and economic frontline has been formed for hegemony in artificial intelligence, chips, batteries and bio supply chain. The frontlines have become complicated with technology and values added to the physical front. Readiness against the North Korean threat alone cannot ensure future security. South Korea’s role in the international society has strengthened. When the country contributes to security and commands strong economic and tech capabilities, allies will come to back South Korea in case of a security crisis in the Korean Peninsula.
Korea must look beyond the peninsula for a more active role in setting a new multilateral order. It must take the initiative in setting new standards for safe international sea routes and realignment of the global supply chain.
The seas around China and across the Indo-Pacific region are the key routes for Korean container and fuel carriers. Future security and growth also hinge on the supply chain for chips, AI and other high tech. The sea routes on which Korea has so far prospered could turn into epicenters for conflict due to challenges from China.
Can South Korea endure the future challenges and risks? We must look on the positive side. First, South Korea commands the 10th biggest GDP in the world. It is home to core technologies including chips. Samsung, SK and other major conglomerates in May pledged over 1,000 trillion won ($767.5 billion) in capital investments over the next five years to advance technologies. The bulk or 80 percent would be spent at home. The pledged 800 trillion won doubles annual government budget.
The investment targets of battery, bio, chips, energy and ESG, AI, and big data are crucial to enhance economic growth and security for the country. “We are staking our lives,” said Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics. Korea’s technology capacity will sharply rise. Korea could become a cornerstone in the new global value chain. The asset also would be the core of security.
Second, South Korea also commands the sixth strongest military power. The Korean forces share command with the U.S. forces, but independently can carry out all types of military operations. On military levels, it is in a better position than NATO members with scaled-back military power and Japan with restrictions in military operation. South Korea’s military capabilities come after America among advanced free democracies. If not for nuclear weapons, China, Russia and North Korea cannot dare to invade South Korea. Lastly, South Korea’s commitment to universal values — freedom and democracy — defines its strength.
The future is uncertain. There are always challenges and dangers. The Covid-19 pandemic side effects, Ukraine war, and U.S.-China contest have been generating new phenomenon on the economic and security fronts. The U.S. is leveraging on NATO, Quad and newer alliance grouping of AP4 and Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to contain China, defend security order, and redesign global value chain. The U.S.-China strategic contest has become a fixture. A multi-faceted approach through economic, technology, and international cooperation can safeguard security and national interests on top of traditional military power. We must set eyes far and wide, as there cannot be opportunities without taking risk.
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