South Korean foreign policy innovation amid Sino-US rivalry

Strategic partnerships and managed ambiguity
Research paper Updated 26 July 2021 Published 22 July 2021 ISBN: 978 1 78413 469 3
US and South Korean flags outside the White House

Dr John Nilsson-Wright

Former Korea Foundation Korea Fellow and Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia, Asia-Pacific Programme

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.