The Geopolitics of South Korea–China Relations

Implications for U.S. Policy in the Indo-Pacific

by Ji-Young Lee

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How are Beijing's growing influence and assertiveness in regional affairs affecting relations between South Korea and China? Since the 1992 diplomatic normalization between the two countries, attempts to upgrade bilateral strategic ties have repeatedly faced unmet expectations, revealing diverging interests at a deeper, geopolitical level. Recently, China has begun to approach South Korea–China relations as an intermediary mechanism for handling strategic competition with the United States. Meanwhile, South Korean leaders' own goals concerning North Korea are a key variable in efforts to build friendlier political relations with China.

China and South Korea's often diverging interests reveal three implications for U.S. policymakers. First, as Beijing becomes more ambitious about changing the status quo in Asia, it might seek to tighten Beijing-Seoul political relations as a way to weaken the U.S. alliance system in the region. Second, Beijing is unlikely to take any actions that would destabilize the North Korean regime, especially if U.S.-China competition grows more intense. This understanding should inform Washington and Seoul's policy coordination efforts toward Pyongyang. Third, South Korean progressives tend to draw closer to Chinese views on issues of North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs. However, it is important to keep in mind that South Korean desire for autonomy in foreign policy and inter-Korean relations does not mean that Seoul renders automatic support for Beijing's regional agenda.

Funding for this research was provided by generous contributions from the Korea Foundation and the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy Advisory Board. This research was conducted within the RAND National Security Research Division.

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