The Strategic Choice of ROK Facing the Sino-US Competition

  • Huizhi ZhangEmail author
Original Article


President Donald Trump’s vision for US foreign policy can be summed up in two words: “America First” and isolationism. In the name of national interests, Trump’s America has not only treated its allies with a tint of harshness or contempt, but also defined China as a “revisionist” or “competitor.” Most of all, the Trump administration has intensified frictions and conflicts with China in all domains. Sino-US competition is the biggest external factor influencing the present and future situation of the Korean peninsula. As an ally of the USA and a strategic partner of China, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has clearly felt the pressure from the increasingly fierce competition between China and USA. On the one hand, it is difficult for ROK to disengage from military dependence on the USA. On the other hand, it is also inconceivable for ROK to terminate its political and economic cooperation with China. A series of policy measures implemented by the Moon Jae-in administration deserves some credit for strengthening the confidence that ROK can exert its diplomatic autonomy and flexibility and control its destiny. This article argues that, in an era of China–USA competition, ROK needs to find a way to avoid strategic dilemmas and make its diplomatic decisions more effective, only by judging accurately the changes of the geopolitical and geoeconomic climate in East Asia and anticipating reasonably the trajectory of China–USA competition.


Sino-US competition Middle power Foreign policy decision Strategic choice dilemma 

In May 2017, Moon Jae-in was sworn in as the new president of the Republic of Korea (hereafter ROK) and introduced a series of new policies. For example, Moon quickly moved to put an end to internal political chaos caused by Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Moon also revamped the ROK’s relations with China, the USA, Japan, Russia and some other Northeast Asian countries and responded to the nuclear threat from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (hereafter DPRK) by promoting USA–ROK alliance and ROK–DPRK cooperation. All in all, Moon’s policies focused on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the creation of the “Northeast Asia Plus Community of Responsibility (NAPCOR).”

In particular, the Moon’s administration adopted a series of peace initiatives toward DPRK. Proposing “a new economic concept on the Korean Peninsula,” for example, Moon responded positively to Kim Jong-un’s appeal in his 2018 New Year’s Day speech and realized three rounds of summit meetings with Kim. Moon’s diplomatic initiatives and policy flexibility reduced the risk of another war on the Korean peninsula and received support from the international community. As a middle power, ROK has played an active role in international affairs. ROK called inter-Korean reconciliation “the end of the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula.” ROK is convinced that peace, stability and prosperity on the peninsula can be maintained only in the long process of promoting the denuclearization of the peninsula.

However, the international community is far from comprehending the extent to which the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has been implemented. The situation on the Korean peninsula remains largely uncertain, since the United Nations lifted no economic sanctions against DPRK and DPRK itself could not obtain any security guarantees. These uncertainties became multiplied because nobody can judge how long ROK’s determination to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can last and whether the relations between DPRK and ROK could once again turn worse.

In the meantime, the international order is in flux, with Sino-US competition intensifying. As a strategic area of geopolitics and geoeconomics, the Korean Peninsula has not only become a field of competition in a comprehensive national strategic game, but also an important variable affecting the regional order in East Asia. China and the USA are the two most important external players that affect the fate of the Korean Peninsula. If ROK can properly handle its relations with China and the USA, it is poised to rise successfully as a middle power.

1 The Increasingly Fierce Competition Between China and the USA has Brought New Diplomatic Issues to ROK

Since China became the world’s second-largest economy in 2010, the Asia–Pacific strategy of the USA has met major adjustments, and Sino-US relations have also undergone significant changes. In 2011, the USA clearly put forward the slogan of “returning to Asia–Pacific” and implemented the “Rebalance in Asia–Pacific” strategy. The USA regards China and other emerging powers as its competitors to curb the development of their comprehensive strength in the fields of economy, diplomacy, military affairs and values.

During the period of the Obama administration, although the USA has taken many measures to constrain China’s development, the Sino-US cooperative relations have not been greatly affected, especially in dealing with regional security issues such as the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and the two countries still maintain close communication and coordination.

However, the Trump administration has adopted the policy of “America first” and adhered to the concept of isolationism in 2017. In order to maximize its own interests, Trump has not only treated allies with harshness or contempt, but also defined China as a “revisionist country” and a “competitor” (Teng 2018).1 Therefore, the Trump administration is expanding the conflicts and frictions with China in all domains.

China–USA relations have deteriorated faster than almost anyone could have expected. The question looms: Are the two countries leaping with their eyes closed into a so-called Thucydides Trap, with war possible between the rising and the established power?

A comparison of the policies of Obama administration and trump administration toward China


Obama administration

Trump administration

Sino-US’s relations

Coexistence of partners and competitors

Strategic competitor

Strategic name

Asia–Pacific rebalancing strategy

Indo-Pacific strategy (have not clear content yet)

Policy measures

Contacting + checking and balancing + containmenting

Containmenting + preventing + contacting

Economic content

Excluding China from TPP negotiations (using multilateral trade agreements to contain China)

Rejecting AIIB (Denying China’s equal partnership status)

Adhering to economic pragmatism, maintaining bilateral trade and investment relations and having strong willingness to cooperate

Trading war with the core of tariffs

Implementing a technical blockade against the “Made in China 2025” strategy

Adhering to bilateral trade negotiations and the policy of “America first,” Striving to exclude China from global trade

Threatening to withdraw from the WTO, intending to regain control of the rules

Political diplomacy

Requiring China to assume the responsibility of the big country

Strengthening cooperation with allies and non-allied countries, creating a strategic encirclement circle for China

Strengthening value diplomacy

Dealing with the alliance with transactionism and requiring the alliance to assume more responsibilities and obligations

Moderating emphasis on ideology and strengthening the intention of checks and balancing among Asian countries

Seeking hegemony with strength

Military security

Employing of 60% of the force in the Asia–Pacific region

Strengthening alliance security cooperation and expanding bilateral alliance to multilateral Alliance

Promoting allies to demonstrate their strength in South China Sea, Diaoyu Island, Korean Peninsula and other affairs, the USA undertaking military deterrence behind them, but avoiding direct conflict between China and the USA

Reusing of the Taiwan issue to infringe on China’s core national interests

Expanding the role of allies and continuing to strengthen military deployment in the Asia–Pacific region

Personally intervening in Asia–Pacific security affairs, preparing for direct conflict between China and the USA

System design

Trying to change China with free trade doctrine

Promoting China’s integration into the International Economic System to change China’s political model

Trying to change China with free trade doctrine

Excluding China from the international economic system to force China to change its political model

The author summarized according to the data

Comparing the Obama administration’s and Trump administration’s policy toward China, there are differences and commonalities between the them. Both Asia–Pacific rebalancing strategy and the Indo-Pacific strategy are based on the “zero-sum game.” The “zero-sum game” is a series of political, economic and military measures that can safeguard the USA’ world hegemonic status and comprehensively curb overall development of China.

Despite the extreme provocative actions of the Trump administration and different cultures and philosophies, China has worked hard to resolve conflicts through cooperation, so that bilateral relations can remain “unbreakable.” However, judging from the game between hegemonic powers and rising powers and the change of East Asian order, the strategic competition between China and the USA will continue for a long time, and the uncertainties will increase.

Unlike the ideological struggle between the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Sino-US competition is more embodied in the geopolitical sphere of influence, which belongs to the geostrategic competition. Brzezinski once pointed out that the ideal outcome of the USA is to transform China into a country that realizes democratization and free market. If the USA fails to achieve this goal, it must accept that China is a regional power. At the same time, the USA should agree with China’s sphere of influence, which is the Korean Peninsula (Brzezinski 2007, pp. 44–45).

After the end of the Cold War and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and ROK, China has maintained good diplomatic relations with DPRK and ROK. However, in view of not been effectively resolved, the USA–DPRK relations will continue to be in a state of antagonism or even confrontation.

Although the USA knows that ROK relies heavily on the USA–ROK alliance, it also worries that the development of Sino-ROK relations will weaken the USA–ROK alliance. Thus, it will affect the strategic status of US troops in ROK and the US military presence in Japan and undermining the strategic objectives of besieging China. Therefore, the USA attaches great importance to the role of ROK and regards maintaining its military presence in ROK as an important guarantee of its strategic interests in the Asia–Pacific region.

ROK’s geopolitical environment is surrounded by big powers in Northeast Asia, and the split states of the Korean Peninsula make its strategic security situation very complex. As a representative of the world’s middle states, ROK has been pursuing the goal of national security and development in a balanced and stable world order. Therefore, ROK not only maintains close alliance with the USA, but also builds a strategic partnership with China.

Although ROK shares common interests with China and the USA in terms of security and economy, it has basically expanded the relations between China, ROK and the USA. Under the dual pattern of “relying on the USA in terms of security and relying on China in terms of economy,” ROK has obtained tremendous benefits. This is mainly due to the status and role of the country’s geopolitical pivot.

Under the background of the return of international relations to geopolitics and the shaking of the autonomous international order, ROK—a country with geopolitical pivot—has an all-round influence on politics, economy and security. In the process of adjusting the international order and changing the regional situation dramatically, ROK can play a positive role as well as possibly have a negative impact. Therefore, it has become the object of competition between great powers.

Since the end of the Cold War, the USA has focused on defending China in the Asia–Pacific security defense strategy. To prevent China’s rise, the USA has made ROK become a strategic fulcrum in its Northeast Asia strategy. With the US–ROK alliance and the US–ROK–Japan trilateral alliance, the USA can not only respond to the DPRK’s threat, but also point its finger at China which constantly interferes with China–ROK relations. The USA has used ROK’s strategic need which want to continuously improve its international status, and has built ROK a “US–ROK comprehensive strategic alliance.” The USA will expand the role of the USA–ROK alliance from the Korean Peninsula to the Northeast Asian region and the global level.

Although China and ROK established diplomatic relations only for 20 years, bilateral relations have achieved rapid development. From the perspective of national strategic interests and long-term development, China has continued to deepen its strategic cooperation with ROK and adhere to the peaceful negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue and the Korean Peninsula issue. By deepening economic cooperation and promoting economic integration in Northeast Asia, China and ROK will achieve common prosperity and development. China has never asked ROK to abandon the ROK–USA alliance, but hopes that ROK will remain neutral in China and the USA relations. While maintaining the ROK–USA alliance, China should not be regarded as an imaginary enemy.

The intensified competition between China and the USA for dominance in the Asia–Pacific region has resulted in a narrowing of the strategic options of other countries between the two countries. As an ally of the USA, ROK is increasingly facing the dilemma of choice between China and the USA. On the one hand, strengthening the relationship with China—the economic partner—ROK will weaken its alliance with the USA. On the other hand, strengthening the alliance with the USA, ROK will easily conflict with China’s partnership.

For ROK, its alliance with the USA has a long history and relies heavily on the security guarantees provided by the USA. However, ROK’s top trading partner is China which its economic growth is closely related to the world (Ling 2018). On the issue of US deployment of THAAD system in the ROK, ROK chose to favor the USA because its security needs exceeded its economic needs. This issue not only broke the long-term strategic balance between China and the USA, but also reflected the choice dilemma under the divided peninsula.

Since 2018, with the change of the DPRK’s national development strategy, the ROK–DPRK relations have been greatly improved. Therefore, the increasing competition between China and the USA has once again aggravated ROK’s concerns in the context of a sharp increase in the willingness to cooperate between ROK–DPRK and a significant reduction in the risk of another war on the Korean Peninsula.

China and the USA are ROK’s first- and second-largest export markets, respectively. The trade between China, the USA and ROK is closely linked. China assembles product components and intermediate products that imported from ROK and sells them to the USA. Therefore, Sino-US trade frictions will inevitably have an impact on ROK’s exports.

According to the CEIC, since the products produced by ROK through international division of labor account for 65% of the country’s total export products (Global Value Chain Participation Rate), the long-term Sino-US trade war will make ROK the most affected country (Gao 2018). In addition, ROK is highly concerned about the greater risks posed by China–USA security competition.

In the future, ROK needs to make correct judgments and choices on many new topics as follows. First of all, how does ROK manage the risks brought about by the competition of big powers that avoid being involved in the competition or conflict of big powers again, and avoid falling into the situation of “either being the victim of the power of big powers or being the follower of the power of big powers.” Secondly, how can ROK continue to promote the process of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and achieve peace and stability in the competition between China and the USA?

2 Trend of Sino-ROK and USA–ROK Relations Under the Sino-US Competition Pattern

As the two most important countries in the Asia–Pacific region, China and the USA are playing a leading role in the process of reshaping the order in East Asia. China and the USA are also the two most important external factors for the change of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. ROK’s relationship with China and the USA has a direct impact on the future and destiny of the country.

Although has long been constrained by the complex security environment in Northeast Asia and the threat from DPRK, ROK has been trying to break the predicament of security in Northeast Asia on major issues related to the survival and development of the country. And ROK was committed to becoming an international leader to enhance its leadership over Korean Peninsula affairs. The development and changes of the relations between Sino-ROK and USA–ROK reflect to some extent the adjustment of ROK’s national strategic objectives.

USA–ROK alliance is an asymmetric alliance between big and small countries after the 1950–1953 Korean War. As a small and weak country in asymmetric alliance relations, ROK has accepted American security guarantees in the past decades to avoid the security threat posed by DPRK and to sacrifice its own sovereignty. Usually, with the formation of alliances, ROK will face the “entrapment–abandonment” dilemma—the strong countries fear that they will be affected by the weak countries’ pursuit of national interests. On the contrary, the weak countries fear that they may be abandoned by the powerful countries (Snyder 1984).

In fact, the Korean Peninsula is the most important area for the USA to maintain its hegemonic competition. Therefore, since 1953, when concluded the armistice agreement, all the issues on the Korean Peninsula have the shadow of the USA. The foreign and defense policies of successive ROK administrations have been influenced by the US policy toward the Korean Peninsula. This is the result of the continuous management of the situation on the Korean Peninsula by the USA in the direction of benefiting its own interests. It also reflects the importance of the geopolitical value of the Korean Peninsula to the hegemonic competition of the USA.

During the Cold War, the ROK–USA relationship was manifested as an obvious “aid-aided” relationship. At that time, because of the ROK’s weak national strength, its diplomatic focus was entirely on dealing with the threat posed by DPRK. Its national security relied entirely on the USA. Due to the devastating economic damage caused by the Korean War, ROK’s economic recovery and development were also achieved with the assistance of the USA. Therefore, ROK also maintained close relations with the USA in the political and economic fields.

During this period, ROK’s foreign policy mainly depended on the defense strategy of the USA on the Korean Peninsula, for example the establishment of diplomatic relations between ROK and Japan, sending troops to participate in the Vietnam War, the ROK–DPRK dialogue in the early 1970s and the covert development of nuclear weapons by Park Chung-hee in the mid-1970s (Snyder 2018). At that time, because of the fear of being abandoned by the USA and leading to the disintegration of the alliance, ROK could only act according to the will of the USA.

After the end of the Cold War, ROK’s economic growth and strength enhanced the scope, objectives and radius of its foreign policy. ROK not only established diplomatic relations with socialist countries such as China and the Soviet Union, but also had certain advantages in relation to DPRK because of the economical strength (Of course, it triggered the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue). At the same time, ROK can make more demands for autonomy in the ROK–USA alliance.

For example, after the outbreak of the second Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, and in the process of six-party talks with neighboring countries, ROK has become increasingly aware that it is equally important to maintain the ROK–USA alliance and deepen the development of relations between ROK and the China. After all, China’s role in solving the Korean Peninsula problem is irreplaceable by any other country.

At that time, the Roh Moo-hyun administration advocated that “while strengthening the ROK–USA alliance, China should also be included.” ROK tried to become a “balancer in Northeast Asia” which hoping to play an active role in coordinating the contradictions between regional powers, maintaining regional peace and stability and thus ensuring autonomy among the powers (Bi 2018).

Since then, under the principle of “practical diplomacy,” the governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye have also tried to find a balance between China and the USA through the measures that “Maintaining alliances with the USA and living in harmony with China” (Jeong 2011; Koo 2015).

However, as ROK’s still weak diplomatic autonomy in Northeast Asia, the USA has vigorously promoted the “Asia–Pacific rebalancing strategy” to avoid ROK moving closer to China. Meanwhile, the threat posed by DPRK’s successive nuclear tests has made ROK reintegrated into the strategic layout of the Asia–Pacific region of the USA.

After the end of the Cold War, relying on economic cooperation between the two countries, the development of Sino-ROK relations has gradually extended to political diplomacy, social culture and military security. Considering ROK’s economic dependence on China, China’s influence on DPRK, China’s role in the reunification of the peninsula and the impact of competition between China and the USA, ROK has adopted a parallel strategy of cooperation and restraint between China and the USA as follows.

In terms of political diplomacy, ROK not only strengthens its comprehensive strategic alliance with the USA, but also strengthens its “strategic partnership” with China by balancing its relations with the USA.

In terms of economic cooperation, ROK hopes not only to benefit from China’s economic growth, but also to prevent China from threatening its position in the international market. In terms of military security, ROK hopes not only to increase bilateral military cooperation with China, so as to play China’s positive role in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but also to improve its military strength in order to prevent the “uncertainties” brought about by China’s rise.

ROK has always emphasized “deepening the strategic partnership with China on the basis of the ROK–USA alliance.” It can be inferred that it is difficult for Sino-ROK relations to break through the structural restrictions of the ROK–USA alliance.

To use an image analogy, the THAAD anti-missile system is a “wedge” driving between China and ROK. This issue had two major negative effects. First of all, it has seriously reduced the political mutual trust between China and ROK, led to economic friction and caused the change of public opinions. Secondly, it also provided an opportunity for the USA to incorporate ROK into their missile defense system, thus becoming a hidden danger for the sustainable development of Sino-ROK relations.

Although the THAAD controversy has not been effectively resolved, ROK needs to make an objective judgment on China–ROK relations from the national strategic objectives of security, prosperity and reunification.

2.1 First, China is an Important Support for Maintaining Peace and Stability on the Korean Peninsula, and ROK’s Security Cannot Be Achieved Without China’s Support

For any international order, the pursuit of national security has always been the most important purpose and the fundamental guarantee for the survival and development of the country. National security includes not only military security and political security, but also human security and social security (Dai 2017, pp. 149–150).

In 2017, the “April crisis” and “August crisis” on the Korean Peninsula made the Korean government and people truly feeling the fear of war. They also realized that the USA could lead to war in spite of the national interests of ROK. During this period, China resolutely opposed the US policy of war on the Korean Peninsula, which played a vital role in preventing the reckless actions of the USA. It also made ROK deeply realize that China is a reliable partner in maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula.

As still big differences on the issue of denuclearization of the peninsula, there is a possibility of reversal of bilateral relations between the DPRK and the USA “Peace priority” has become the consensus of different political parties in ROK. In the process of achieving peace, stability and denuclearization on the peninsula, China will be an important partner and support force for ROK in order to prevent the USA from provoking another war crisis.

2.2 Second, the International Public Goods Provided by China Such as “the Belt and Road Initiative” and AIIB, has Provided an Opportunity and Impetus for ROK’s Prosperity and Development

Although ROK hopes to reduce its economic dependence on China through the implementation of the “New South Policy” and “New North Policy,” the deepening development of economic and trade cooperation between China and ROK has led to the inseparability of neither side. Although the “New South Policy” and “New North Policy” can deepen the relationship with other trading partners, they cannot replace the economic and trade cooperation between China and ROK (China’s Ministry of Commerce 2018).2

In recent years, ROK has made efforts to connect its “Eurasian initiative” and “New North Policy” with the “the Belt and Road Initiative” proposed by China. On the basis of FTA between China and ROK, ROK continues to deepen economic cooperation between the two countries in an all-round way. This not only brought new opportunities and impetus to ROK’s economy, but also created many favorable conditions for ROK to promote the strategy of “New Economic Concept on Korean Peninsula” and promote multilateral cooperation between China, ROK, Russia and so on.

The Trump administration frequently threatened ROK to increase its “protection fee” on the grounds of “withdrawal of the military” and to revamp the ROK–USA’s FTA to reduce the trade deficit between the USA and ROK, which greatly increased the economic burden of ROK. These narrow economic nationalist policies and measures have brought tremendous pressure to the export-oriented ROK’s economy.

Contrary to the practice of the USA, China is increasingly supporting multilateralism and cooperation and calling on APEC to maintain a “more open, inclusive and balanced” economic order. It can be seen that the development concept of “consultation and collaboration for shared benefits” is undoubtedly more in line with the strategic needs of ROK’s prosperous development.

2.3 Third, the Reunification of the Korean Peninsula Requires China’s Support

The issue of reunification on the Korean Peninsula depends not only on the will and will of the DPRK and the ROK, but also on the complex international relations in Northeast Asia.

The USA is highly concerned that any progress in the reunification of the Korean peninsula may disrupt the foundation of the USA to continue its military presence in ROK, because a unified Korean peninsula may terminate its military dependence on the USA, opt for some form of neutrality between China and Japan and then join China’s sphere of influence. The above considerations have intensified the need for the USA and Japan to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula (Brzezinski 2007, p. 45).

ROK mistakenly believes that China, similarly the USA, does not want the peninsula to be unified. We must know that China has always supported the Korean Peninsula to accomplish the historical task of peaceful reunification through its own strength. Historical experience proves that when the Korean peninsula is in reunification, China–DPRK relations will be stable and friendly, and China’s eastern security will be guaranteed. When the Korean peninsula is divided or turbulent, China’s security will be threatened and even dragged into war.

Of course, if the US military continues to reside in the reunified Korean Peninsula, this will only increase China’s uneasiness. After all, there is no doubt that the military forces will be aimed at China. Therefore, the withdrawal of US troops “may indeed be the asking price for China to use its decisive influence to help the peninsula achieve unity” (Brzezinski 2007, pp. 45 and 153).

In the development of China–ROK and USA–ROK relations, ROK has also entered the ranks of medium-powered countries. The most intuitive way to define a middle power is to examine the economic strength, military strength, political influence, cultural attractiveness and technical strength of a country. Defining a middle power can also examine the country’s influence in the international community and whether it has the considerable weight in the areas of regional affairs and even the global specific issues and agendas (Dai 2017, pp. 48–71).

From the perspective of comprehensive national strength and international influence, ROK has grown into a middle power and entered an era in which the international community emphasizes self-national awareness. Starting from the Roh Moo-hyun government, through the vigorous promotion of the two governments of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, ROK continues to push the “middle power” as its national brand to the international community. ROK is playing an active role in the international community and is striving to expand its influence in expanding foreign economic cooperation. Now, the consensus of ROK as a middle power has been recognized by the international community.

Nevertheless, ROK still needs to think about how to break through the security dilemma in Northeast Asia. Since the beginning of this year, ROK has taken the initiative to engage in diplomatic activities with DPRK in the face of China’s rise and the structural contradictions of the USA–ROK alliance and the uncertainty brought about by Trump’s isolationism. The Panmunjom Declaration and the Pyongyang Declaration give the Korean peninsula long-term peace expectations.

In the context of the tremendous changes in international relations in Northeast Asia, ROK has had a heated discussion on the strategy of security and prosperity. Does ROK continue to rely on the ROK–USA alliance, or maintain a balanced diplomacy with China and the USA, or have its own defensive power without relying on external forces? ROK needs to make a clear strategic choice.

3 The Main Influencing Factors and Choices of ROK’s Diplomatic Decision-Making

Regardless of ROK’s desire to achieve national security, economic development and the unification of the Korean Peninsula, any of its strategic goals cannot be separated from the support and cooperation between China and the USA.

How ROK chooses between China and the USA depends on changes in geopolitical and geoeconomic patterns, the improvement in ROK’s national strength and the maturity of domestic politics. Only if ROK makes an accurate judgment on the changes in geopolitics and geoeconomic patterns in East Asia, and makes reasonable expectations on the results of Sino-US competition, it is possible to get rid of the dilemma of choice and make correct diplomatic decisions.

3.1 Changes in the Global Geopolitical Landscape

After the end of the Cold War, the global geopolitical landscape has undergone new changes. From a global perspective, because of Britain exiting from the EU, the USA withdrawing from the TPP negotiations, the USA strongly demanding that the allies take on more defense burdens and other changes in the policy, those changes led to the fragmentation of the ocean’s “marginal zone” from Britain to Eurasia to the USA.

At the same time, because of attaching great importance to maintaining the strategic balance between the international community and local regions, China and Russia has led to the consolidation of mainland power. Therefore, the balance of power between the marginal countries of the sea and the countries of Eurasia is taking place in favor of the latter. The USA-led oceanic edge is breaking and fading (Zhang 2017).

From the perspective of East Asia, due to the rapid rise of China, the geopolitical economic structure of the region has changed and the competition between China and the USA has intensified. Against the backdrop of rising comprehensive strength, China has actively promoted new geopolitical goals for economic and security interests. Through diplomatic, security, economic and other means, the USA continues to consolidate its dominant position in the Asia–Pacific region and weaken China’s geopolitical influence (Wu 2017).

From the perspective of power transfer between hegemonic powers and rising countries, Sino-US competition will continue for a long time. The rising country will face an imbalance between strategic expansion and its own weak strength. A declining hegemonic power will face an imbalance between strategic contraction and maintaining international support.

Historically, in the face of a relative decline, hegemonic powers fear that a contraction strategy may lead to the departure of the Allies. However, at present, the Trump administration has taken the initiative to reduce its defense obligations to the Allies, and even does not even consider the reduction in the support of the Allies. The main reason is that under the constraints of nuclear weapons, the possibility of a direct war between China and the USA is extremely low. Therefore, the military support of the Allies is no longer so important. This shows that the US policy toward the allies may be adjusted in the future.

Considering the competition between China and the USA and the ability and influence of the major Northeast Asian countries, ROK’s diplomatic decision-making will inevitably be affected by the balance of regional power and the level of opposition. However, in the process of international rank change in Northeast Asia, ROK’s influence as a middle power in shaping regional order may be greater than its ability to demonstrate.

With the strengthening of ROK’s national strength, the decline of US hegemony and the immature China’s comprehensive national strength, ROK’s demand for national autonomy is growing stronger, and it hopes to play a role as a “Northeast Asian power” and “the world’s first echelon country.” In particular, ROK has played a huge role in handling the DPRK–ROK relations this year, which has greatly reduced ROK’s security threats, improved ROK’s external strategic environment and created conditions for the ROK administration to pursue independent diplomacy.

The Moon administration is trying to get rid of its military dependence on the USA. On the basis of the ability of the USA to provide security, ROK is pursuing an “independent national defense” policy and actively participating in international affairs. ROK hopes to gradually transform the ROK–USA comprehensive strategic alliance into a comprehensive partnership and seek a more equal national status with the USA.

Although it is difficult for ROK to change the impact of the USA on itself in the short term, the recent agreement between ROK and the USA returning wartime operational control of ROK forces and the USA’ agreement to suspend the USA–ROK joint military exercise are all compromises made by the USA. Therefore, in the past, ROK needed the USA more, and now the USA needs ROK more.

3.2 Changes in the Global Geoeconomic Landscape

In 2010, under the Asia–Pacific rebalancing strategy, the Obama administration launched negotiations on the TPP agreement. Its geoeconomic goal was to weaken China’s influence in the regional economy, prevented the deepening of East Asian regional cooperation and reshaped the central role of the USA’s Asia–Pacific economy.

After being elected president, Trump immediately withdrew from the TPP negotiations, advocated bilateral trade negotiations and achieved its “US first” goal with “economic hegemonic” weapons. In order to solve its own economic problems, the USA undermined the economic development of other countries. This has not only suddenly increased the economic pressure of the allies, but also undermined the global governance framework and economic order established by the WTO and other international institutions.

In contrast, China was fully committed to the “the Belt and Road Initiative,” establishing an AIIB, and actively participating in the negotiations between RCEP and the China–Japan–ROK free trade zone. The purpose is to expand space and platform for China’s economic development, provide more international public goods for Northeast Asia and maintain economic cooperation in East Asia.

The USA only requires other countries to adhere to the norms and principles. This not only reveals the hypocrisy of the USA, but also makes the small- and medium-powered countries always have the worry of being abandoned (Huong 2018). Therefore, it is not only difficult for East Asian countries to abandon the “dividends” brought by China, but they are also striving to “warn the group” to jointly defend free trade and economic cooperation and resist the impact of trade protectionism.

ROK’s economy is highly dependent on the international market. The direction of world economic development, the stability of international financial market and the economic policies of major powers will have an important impact on ROK. ROK pays special attention to global economic trends and relies more on regional and multilateral cooperation. After all, ROK’s political, economic and military strength comes from its economic growth. If the economic strength declines and the contribution ability to provide economic support to the international community decreases, the status and role of ROK as a middle power acquired through tremendous efforts will be weakened.

Therefore, every administration in ROK regarded sustained economic growth as its core goal. Especially after the failure of the “Income for Growth” policy proposed by Moon Jae-in’s administration, all its plans to promote economic growth through foreign economic cooperation, such as the “New North Policy” and “New South Policy,” “Strategic Plan of Nine Bridges”3 and “New Economic Concept of the Korean Peninsula,” cannot be separated from the close cooperation of neighboring countries.

3.3 Trend of Sino-US Relations

Against the background of the complex political and economic structure in Northeast Asia, the possible power competition and potential conflict between China and the USA have made ROK feel the pressure obviously. This is because although ROK is a medium-powered in economy, its geographic space and strategic depth are extremely limited. As a result, ROK will find it difficult to recover from the competition between China and the USA. So ROK has been shying away from choosing between China and the USA. For ROK, no choice is the best choice.

However, since the Sino-ROK friction caused by the THAAD system issue, ROK is more inclined to the USA in terms of security, and proposed that the building of ROK’s defense force should not only deal with the threat of DPRK, but also balance the strength of neighboring countries (Park 2018). That is to say, if Sino-US relations turn to conflict, ROK will most likely “turn to” the USA directly, and even help the USA to strengthen its containment against China.

In fact, China and the USA are more likely to compromise. Although the US National Security Report and Defense Strategy Report issued in December 2017 and January 2018 define Sino-US relations as strategic competitors, the USA also emphasizes that competition does not necessarily lead to hostility or conflict. On the contrary, conflicts can be prevented from competition.

According to the Rand report, although the current liberal world order has met significant changes, the postwar order has brought great benefit to the USA and other countries. The order still retains the adaptability of the core areas. Challengers of this order do not seek to destroy it, but seek to gain more influence within it.

In this context, especially considering China’s future role in the international order, the USA-led international order must give way to an international system that pays more attention to multilateralism and the voices of other major powers. Otherwise, the USA will not be able to assume a more dynamic leadership role financially and strategically (Mazarr 2018).

Therefore, overall competition between China and the USA will be controllable. Compared with the aggressive attitude of Trump’s administration, China adheres to the principle of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win–win cooperation.” These measures have strengthened the control over the differences between China and the USA, and also reflected the differences between eastern and Western philosophy.

In view of the controllable differences between China and the USA, the absence of clear confrontation in the ideological sphere and the existence of more dialogue mechanisms between the two countries, and the inadequacy of forming large-country relations similar to the Cold War, China and the USA still have considerable divergences on specific issues of space management and control (Fan 2018).

At present, both countries are aware that zero-sum containment attempts can easily lead to conflicts. They are committed to negotiating through multiple channels and striving to reach a mutually acceptable solution through dialogue to resolve differences. “In order to increase the possibility of China becoming a major global partner, the USA should acquiesce in China’s prominent geopolitical position on the Asian continent and China’s dominance of the Asian economy” (Brzezinski 2012).

Hence, China has many necessary conditions for economic development, such as economies of scale, complex supply chains, fierce competition among many enterprises and huge domestic market demand. Even if the USA closes the door to trade and investment, it will not prevent China from technological innovation and continued prosperity (Nikkei Business and Commerce 2018). What is more, the USA is not confident that it will completely cut off the economic ties between China and the USA, which will do great harm to the USA.

As an important influential country in the geopolitical region of Northeast Asia, ROK still needs to carry out a foreign policy to expand its influence in order to achieve an international status matching its own strength, abandon the checks and balances against China and strengthen its political diplomacy and economy with China, standing in the key position of protection of national sovereignty and international system and economic cooperation.

ROK should actively resolve the security pressures brought by Sino-US competition, maximize its own interests and enhance its international influence by maintaining effective cooperative relations with both China and the USA as a “balancer among big powers.”

3.4 ROK’s National Strength and Changes in the Domestic Political Environment

With economic growth, ROK’s national strength has improved rapidly. In terms of economic indicators, in 2017, ROK’s gross national income reached $1.53 trillion, ranking 12th in the world. ROK’s GDP growth rate reached 3.1%, ranking fifth in the world. ROK’s total trade volume is 1.052 trillion US dollars, ranking ninth in the world. ROK has a per capita national income of $29,700, ranking ninth in the world. ROK’s defense budget continued to increase, accounting for 2.33% of GDP. ROK’s defense budget is second only to the level of the USA and Russia, far more than China and Japan.

Since 2010, hosted the G20 Summit in Seoul, ROK has also hosted multilateral conferences on nuclear security, development cooperation and green growth, which have made ROK play a greater role in Northeast Asia and global affairs. These have prompted ROK to exert a stronger will to influence.

A country’s foreign policy is formulated by policy makers on the basis of rational choice in accordance with national interests and is used to guide a country’s diplomatic and foreign relations activities. However, foreign policy-making by policy makers is in a complex domestic political environment.

At the national level, domestic groups seek their own interests by forcing governments to adopt consensual policies, while politicians seek power by building alliances among these groups. At the international level, the state seeks to maximize its ability to meet domestic needs while minimizing the adverse consequences of external changes (Putnam 1988).

Consequently, competition among allies, interest groups and domestic institutions with different preferences will lead to the formation of a country’s economic, military and foreign policies at the international negotiating table, which may be undermined by any party’s unsatisfactory results (Lobell 2003). Correspondingly, any leader who fails to meet the demands of domestic interest groups will be forced to resign. This has long been a lesson for the ROK’s administrations.

Generally speaking, ROK political camp can be divided into conservative camp and progressive camp. Conservatives argue that the USA–ROK alliance is the cornerstone of ROK’s diplomatic security. They believe that only on the basis of the USA–ROK alliance can China–ROK relations be developed. Although the progressives do not deny this diplomatic cornerstone, they hope to minimize the excessive influence of the USA on ROK. They put forward the policy of “independent diplomacy” and “independent national defense.” They advocate balanced development of relations between China, ROK, the USA and ROK.

Moon Jae-in’s administration is a representative of the progressive camp. After being elected president, Moon Jae-in proposed to be the “driver” of Korean Peninsula affairs. The Moon Jae-in’s administration took the initiative to express goodwill to China and DPRK, actively restore relations with China and implement a moderate policy toward DPRK. An agreement was reached with the USA to regain wartime operational command by 2022 at the latest (Chong 2018), although this Agreement sets many preconditions.4 It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved at that time.

In terms of diplomacy, ROK’s domestic politics has been influenced by the USA because of its long-term follow-up with the USA. Coupled with the constraints of pro-American conservatives, reliance on the USA and the support of the USA remain essential conditions for Moon Jae-in to maintain his domestic orthodoxy. Therefore, on the one hand, in order to avoid American dissatisfaction with ROK’s foreign policy, Moon Jae-in actively attributed a series of achievements in his active diplomacy to Trump’s support. On the other hand, ROK is committed to deepening Sino-ROK relations and restoring in a low-key and firm manner.

The strategic objective of the Moon Jae-in government’s “double hedging” between China and the USA is to enhance national autonomy by means of national strength and avoid the damage to ROK’s interests caused by the competition between China and the USA.

4 Conclusion

Thucydides trap is a concept that people often use when talking about Sino-US relations in recent years. Professor Graham Allison, the proponent of Thucydides Trap, believes that Thucydides Trap between China and the USA is not inevitable. He believed that it was not inconceivable for China and the USA to have conflicts or even wars, and the consequences would certainly be unacceptable to both sides and even the whole world. Nevertheless, hegemonic powers’ sense of threat and fear toward rising countries will inevitably lead to competition, prevention and even confrontation. Therefore, Sino-US competition will exist for a long time.

Under the background that China’s strength is far from threatening the hegemony of the USA, the confidence of the USA in curbing China’s decline, and the confidence of China in implementing its aggressive strategy is rising, the USA will use allies and military security cooperation as the main means to seek support for its dominant position.

The Korean Peninsula has always been a contest between big powers. For ROK, when the security threat posed by DPRK is greater, ROK will be closer to the USA and seek the security from the USA; when the security threat of DPRK is alleviated, ROK will be closer to China and seek opportunities for economic cooperation. However, considering the historical and geographic relationship between China and DPRK, ROK is not only increasingly dependent on China economically, but also increasingly inseparable from China in terms of security (Liu and Jiamin 2018).

After experiencing another war crisis on the Korean Peninsula in 2017, ROK’s “peace priority” awareness and needs are stronger and more real than ever in history. ROK is unwilling to suffer the devastation of its own country because of the confrontation between DPRK and the USA. ROK is also reluctant to become a chess piece for the USA to contain China. Since 2018, bilateral relations have been greatly improved with the diplomatic efforts of DPRK and ROK.

At the same time, the implementation of the “9.19 Military Agreement”5 by both sides has greatly alleviated the security threat faced by ROK. On January 1, 2019, Kim Jong-un reiterated his desire for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. He stressed that DPRK will “no longer produce nuclear weapons, no longer conduct nuclear tests, no use and proliferation of nuclear weapons.” He envisaged building the Korean Peninsula into a permanent and consolidated peace area with economic development as its core.

After a series of diplomatic achievements, Moon Jae-in’s adminstration is facing the important task of getting rid of the economic depression and promoting sustainable economic growth. Only in this way can the policies he pursued be supported by the national.

Against the background of the continuing downturn in the world economy, the trend of economic globalization and the prevalence of trade protectionism, the USA adheres to the policy of isolationism, which uses trade wars to attack all trading partners (including ROK and Japan). In order to meet the severe challenges facing the economy, ROK, which has a high dependence on exports, must strengthen cooperation with countries represented by China that advocate win–win cooperation.

Therefore, ROK is eagerly looking forward to the implementation of the economic cooperation agreement signed by DPRK and ROK as soon as possible, so as to stimulate the new growth point of its economy. For ROK, it is of great significance if the project of road and railway connection and modernization between ROK and DPRK can be smoothly promoted.

Firstly, the project can promote the construction of the Korean Peninsula Economic Community and lay the foundation for the reunification of the peninsula. Secondly, the project can help ROK get rid of the difficulties of “island country” transportation, realize the land connection with the Eurasian continent, connect with China’s “the Belt and Road Initiative” and Russia’s “New Oriental Policy,” so as to achieve the synergy effect of economic cooperation. Ultimately, ROK can achieve the strategic goal of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.


  1. 1.

    Trump did three things after he was elected President of the USA. First, he redefined national interests. He pointed out that national interests should include the security, prosperity and free democracy of the USA, but international governance, security and interests of other countries are not the concerns of the USA. Second, the USA should focus all its attention on its own country to ensure its security and prosperity. Third, the USA should reduce its overseas obligations, intervene only in matters related to its security and prosperity and determine its policies in accordance with its national interests. After being elected President of the USA, Trump withdrew from the TPP and Paris Climate Change Agreements, reduced financial assistance to the United Nations and other international organizations, and re-talked with the countries concerned about the FTA that had been signed. Teng (2018) Strategic Focus Shift of Trump Administration. Contemporary World 3:35.

  2. 2.

    In 2017, despite the impact of the THAAD anti-missile system issue, the total trade volume between China and ROK reached 280.36 billion US dollars, up 10.3% year-on-year, much higher than the total trade volume between ROK and the USA ($119.35 billion) and between ROK and Japan ($81.96 billion). “Country Trade Report—ROK,” China’s Ministry of Commerce (2018).

  3. 3.

    President Moon Jae-in first put forward the “Nine Bridges Strategic Plan” when he attended the Oriental Economic Forum on September 7, 2018. The plan aims to strengthen cooperation between ROK and Russia in nine areas (gasoline, railways, harbors, electricity, Arctic waterways, shipbuilding, employment, agriculture and aquatic products) in order to achieve mutual benefit and win–win situation. “ROK and Russia should explore new areas of cooperation on the basis of the Nine Bridges,” keynote speech of LeeHae-chan’s fourth Oriental Economic Forum, September 12, 2018.

  4. 4.

    There are three conditions for ROK to regain its wartime operational control: first, a stable security environment on the Korean Peninsula; secondly, after the handover of wartime operational control from the USA, the ROK Army has the core military capability to dominate the joint defense forces between the two countries, while the USA can provide sustainable complementary forces; and thirdly, the ROK Army has the ability to respond to the DPRK nuclear and missile threat in the early stage of local provocation and comprehensive war, while the USA provides extended deterrence means and combat capability equipment.

  5. 5.

    In September 2018, President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang. While the DPRK and the ROK issued the Pyongyang Joint Declaration, defense ministers signed the Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjeom Declaration in the Military Domain.

    [Korea] Daily News, 2018.9.19.



This research was supported by a major grant of the Ministry of Education (2017JJDGJW005), titled “Trends and Changes in Korean Peninsula and Our Response”.


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© Asiatic Research Institute 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Northeast Asian Studies College of Jilin UniversityChangchunChina

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