Experts say the Biden administration wants the next South Korean president to forge a strong alliance with the United States to defend an East Asia increasingly overshadowed by China’s aggression and to tackle North Korea’s threats.
The South Korean presidential election is scheduled for March 9, 2022. The leading contenders are Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Seok-yeol of the opposition People Power Party.
Experts said the next election will be critical for the Biden administration as Washington is looking toward South Korea’s next president to play a crucial role in support of Washington’s top foreign policy agenda, which is countering China’s military aggression in Asia, according to experts.
Ken Gause, director or the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia, said, “The way the U.S. looks at Asia policy right now, China is the most important [concern].”
“What (the Biden administration) wants to do is show a united front against Chinese aggressive behavior or unconventional behavior in the region, and would like to have South Korea that is willing to stand up and be part of that pushback in the region like Washington looks toward Australia and Japan,” Gause said.
The Biden administration has been marshalling its allies in Asia to offset what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Chinese “coercion and aggression” when he visited Japan in March. Tokyo was the first stop in his first overseas trip that also included a visit to South Korea.
Washington formed the AUKUS trilateral security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom in September to defend against Chinese military aggression and has been working closely with the Australian, Japanese and Indian leaders of the Quad Security Dialogue to discuss maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific amid China’s assertive moves in the region.
The U.S. has held several multilateral military exercises in the Indo-Pacific region that included Australia and Japan. The most recent began this past weekend off the southern coast of Japan.
Kim Byung-min, spokesperson for presidential candidate Yoon, told VOA’s Korean Service that “Yoon is exploring various ways to upgrade consultation mechanisms between Seoul and Washington.” These would include meetings between the defense officials of the two countries to work on an agenda that “involves the policy and role of China,” such as maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight.
Lee’s camp said, “Lee Jae-myung is fully aware of the multifaceted challenges caused by China’s growing influence in various areas such as politics, economy, cybersecurity and advanced technology.”
The camp added, “All countries in the region, including the U.S. and China, should work based on the principle of mutual respect.”
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Washington does not look for Seoul to choose sides between the U.S. and China, South Korea’s most important trading partner, but does expect Seoul to enforce the rules-based order in its economic relations with Beijing.
Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “The orientation of South Korean foreign policies toward North Korea and China will have an influence on what is possible for the U.S. and South Korea to accomplish together, so the new South Korean president and his policies may either constrain or enable the alliance as it grapples with policy toward both of those countries.”
The VOA’s Korean Service asked the Chinese Embassy in Washington how important the South Korean presidential election is for Beijing, but the press office declined to comment, and referred VOA to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul and the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which has yet to respond.
Experts said the U.S. is also looking for the next South Korean president to work closely with its other main East Asia ally, Japan. The role would involve not only coordinating their policies in countering China but also in dealing with provocations conducted by North Korea using its nuclear weapon and missile programs.
Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said, Washington is looking to “strengthen trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan cooperation.” Revere used the acronym for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
Historical animosity over Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula and the territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks in the East Sea, a group of islets South Korea calls Dokdo, and Japan calls Takeshima, have strained the Seoul-Tokyo relations, making it difficult for Washington to work with its two allies.
Gause, of the CNA think tank, said, “If those three countries, that alliance, becomes weakened, then, it becomes much more difficult to deal with North Korea, much more difficult to deal with China, and potentially is a recipe for instability in the region.”
Revere said regardless of who wins the South Korean election, Washington expects South Korea’s next president to defend the values of democracy.
“At this moment, with authoritarianism and anti-democratic thinking on the rise in so many places, perhaps the most important outcome of the upcoming ROK presidential election for the United States will be to demonstrate the continuing strength and viability of democracy,” he said.
VOA Korean Service journalist Hyungjin Kim contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.