South Korean foreign policy innovation amid Sino-US rivalry

Think tank: Chatham House

Author(s): Dr John Nilsson-Wright; Dr Yu Jie

July 22, 2021

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at strategic partnerships and managed ambiguity for South Korea.

Increased competition on all fronts between China and the US has narrowed the space for cooperation and amplified the risk of confrontation. Countries such as South Korea that have long-standing partnerships with both the US and China – particularly on the economic and security fronts – are now taking a more flexible approach to these interactions. South Korea has pursued a policy of selective cooperation on a range of issues, to avoid becoming trapped in an overly adversarial relationship with China, while limiting any dilution of its alliance ties with the US. South Korea’s leaders are looking to capitalize on the country’s identity as a middle power. This identity is in part a function of relative size and geographical position, but is equally associated with more abstract issues of non-alignment and a wish on the part of Koreans historically to avoid being trapped in great power rivalries, whether during the Cold War or 19th century colonial and imperial rivalries. It remains to be seen whether South Korea’s managed ambiguity is sustainable as the country continues to work with the world’s two leading economic, security and political actors.