► The Yoon Suk Yeol administration has expressed a desire for closer alignment with, and potential membership in, US-led minilateral groupings such as the Quad.
► But it has sent mixed messages about why Korea should join such partnerships, what it wants from them, and what value it can add to them.
► Korea can add its technological and industrial strengths to existing minilateral partnerships but must also build bipartisan consensus to be seen as a credible partner.
Korean Ambivalence towards Allied Minilateralism
One of the key objectives of US Indo-Pacific strategy today is forging a “latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions” with its allies and partners. As a result, the decades-old Five Eyes intelligence-sharing grouping is being updated. The revitalised Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has moved beyond a talk shop to start delivering regional public goods. The AUKUS partnership promises to usher in new levels of defence industry and technology integration among allies. These minilateral groupings complement the Biden administration’s efforts to modernise bilateral US alliances and partnerships as well as its own force posture in the region.
What is striking about these minilateral groupings is that South Korea is not a member of any of them, despite being a US ally and a “linchpin” of peace and security in the region. Korean ambivalence towards US-led minilateral groupings is most commonly attributed to fears of provoking China. For example, China has characterised these groupings as constituting a ‘54321’ formation by the United States to “establish an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.”
In addition, the pervasive threat of North Korea and the centrality of the ROK-US alliance in countering it has also limited interest in regional security issues. In fact, even groupings crucial to the defence of South Korea such as the United Nations Command have been the subject of domestic controversy. Finally, Korea’s strong commitment to economic and defence self-reliance has often placed a premium on national achievement over international cooperation.
The Yoon Administration’s Minilateral Foray
It is therefore noteworthy that South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk Yeol has indicated a desire for closer alignment with, and potential membership in, US-led minilateral groupings. Only six weeks since his inauguration, Yoon held his first phone calls with the four Quad leaders, signed up to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, supported Biden’s Summit for Democracy, promised to craft his own Indo-Pacific Strategy, and attended the NATO Summit alongside other Indo-Pacific allies.
But the Yoon administration has also been at pains to reiterate that its cooperation with US-led minilateral groupings, including cross-regional alliance partnerships with Europe, are not aimed at China. Yoon’s vision of Korea as a “global pivotal state” has instead emphasised Korea’s economic and technological strengths, rather than its military power. He has also focused on dealing with transnational threats such as climate change and pandemics, rather than great power threats.
Setting aside rhetorical ambiguity about China, the Yoon administration needs to better explain the rationale for what it brings to the table and hopes to get from minilateral partnerships. First, diplomatic solidarity is an important benefit when there are shared interests. For example, almost a decade ago, South Korea, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and Australia launched the MIKTA grouping of middle powers to address global governance challenges at the G-20 and United Nations. Rather than simply following the G7 countries, Korea recognised the value of coordinating with like-minded partners. Will solidarity with the Quad members or other US treaty allies offer similar payoffs today?
Second, minilateral groupings can leverage the unique strengths of their members to achieve outcomes greater than the sum of their individual efforts. This is especially so for middle powers like Korea whose capacity is inherently constrained. For example, the Quad Vaccine Partnership involves each member taking the lead on different stages of vaccine manufacturing, delivery, storage, and distribution. Similarly, the recently unveiled Partners in the Blue Pacific grouping aims to reduce duplication of aid and financing efforts by the South Pacific’s traditional partners.
Korea, the Quad, and AUKUS
Korea’s cooperation with allied minilateral partnerships could therefore increase its diplomatic standing as a valued US ally while maximising its regional and global contributions. The Quad now has working groups on health, climate change, infrastructure, cyber security, critical and emerging technologies, space, and maritime domain awareness. Korea could contribute funding and technical expertise to all of them, especially where they overlap with Korea’s own priorities, such as renewable energy and climate change. Furthermore, one of the Quad’s newest working groups is on space, including sharing satellite data for environmental protection and collaboration on space research. Korea’s recent launch of its Nuri KSLV-II opens opportunities for minilateral cooperation beyond just the US-led Artemis Accords.
On the AUKUS partnership, the United States and United Kingdom have agreed to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, overturning decades-old opposition to sensitive defence technology transfer. Often overlooked is that the AUKUS partnership also includes 17 working groups on emerging technologies such as undersea capabilities, quantum technologies, cyber security, and hypersonic missiles. To respond to China’s military build-up, Korea, along with other technologically advanced US allies and partners like Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore could canvass new approaches to “federated defence” procurement in naval surface and subsurface vessels with Australia and Southeast Asia. These are areas where Korea has demonstrated expertise and manufacturing strengths to fill looming capability gaps among allies while similarly benefitting from changing US attitudes towards technology transfer.
Becoming More Than Just a ‘Plus One’
Most importantly, for Korea to effectively engage both the Quad and AUKUS, but also other minilateral partnerships ranging from Korea-US-Japan trilateral security cooperation to the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance, the foreign policy divisions within Korea must be narrowed. That is one of the key lessons from Australia’s engagement with minilateralism over the past decade and why the revitalised Quad has so far weathered three changes of leadership. Without bipartisan support, other partners will inevitably question the durability of Korea’s commitments.
Korea’s security and prosperity can no longer be ensured solely by itself or through its bilateral alliance. The Yoon administration has promised “strategic clarity” in responding to US-China competition, a foreign policy guided by the values of liberal democracy and free market economy, and elevating ties with the United States to a “global comprehensive strategic alliance.” Rather than being a bystander, Korea has much to contribute and also much to gain by widening its network of trusted friends and partners and working together in like-minded coalitions.