Home / Asia and Pacific / Uncomfortable allies? South Korea’s approach to the Taiwan Strait crisis through the lens of Regional Security Complex Theory

Uncomfortable allies? South Korea’s approach to the Taiwan Strait crisis through the lens of Regional Security Complex Theory

7 November, 2021

By Luke Austin – Research Assistant

South Korea and Taiwan share surprisingly complex bilateral relations, especially considering that they have so much in common: they are US allies who have experienced far-reaching democratisation and economic growth in the past three decades, they are both former Japanese colonies and they both possess historical links with China.  Taiwan supported South Korea during the Korean War, while North Korea was supported by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Things appeared to be relatively stable in terms of South Korea-Taiwan bilateral relations for much of the Cold War, with both governments supporting each other over this period as fellow anti-communist states.

Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT)

Some form of theoretical framework is important for our analysis of South Korea-Taiwan bilateral relations. By 2003, members of the so-called Copenhagen School (CS) of security studies had formulated Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT). In 1991, Barry Buzan initially defined security complexes as “a group of states whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another”. A decade later, in 2003, Buzan and fellow CS member Ole Wæver refined the notion of RSCT further: “since most threats travel more easily over short distances than over long ones, security interdependence is normally patterned into regionally based clusters: security complexes”. It was at this point that the CS declared the regional level the most important level of analysis out of a total of four levels: domestic, regional, inter-regional, and global. Far from being claimed by one particular school of thought, RSCT accommodates for neo-Realist notions such as “polarity, balance of power, and importance of material conditions” while also reflecting typically constructivist arguments due to its analysis of the influence of “patterns of amity and enmity” on the creation and functioning of regional security complexes (RSCs).

That same year, Buzan differentiated between the Cold War and post-Cold War Asian security environments: whereas three separate RSCs existed in Cold War-era Asia, after the Cold War emerged a single East Asian RSC from the merger of Southeast Asian and Northeast Asian security dynamics. In his view, it was the presence of great powers in the Asian RSC which made it stand out from other RSCS as this has produced a stronger “interregional level of security dynamics” as well as ensuring that Asian regional security dynamics have an effect on the global level as opposed to merely being affected by the global level. Take, for example, the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013: BRI member states currently span from Asia to Europe, Africa, and South America.  The individual BRI projects range from domestic-oriented projects such as the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Rail in Indonesia to regional and inter-regional projects along the lines of the China–Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWEC). The BRI can therefore be interpreted as permeating at least three levels (domestic, regional, and inter-regional) of analysis.

The post-Cold War South Korea-Taiwan split

After the Cold War, the US became increasingly disturbed by the rise of the PRC. In the late 1990s, for example, it was dreaded by many in Washington that PRC domination of the South China Sea (SCS), the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan could lead to a “Chinese Monroe Doctrine”. In RSCT terms, the post-Cold War period saw an “external transformation” of the regional security environment in East Asia, whereby Northeast and Southeast Asia started to merge into a single RSC. In August 1992, South Korea and the PRC formally established diplomatic relations. This is arguably one example of then-President of South Korea Roh Tae-woo’s “nordpolitik” encompassing South Korean efforts to normalise relations with North Korea, partially via the expansion of economic cooperation with countries which had been considered friendly towards North Korea. Having been notified in advance of the South Korea-PRC rapprochement, Taipei retaliated by severing ties with Seoul, initiating import embargoes, and even withdrawing from an aviation pact. South Korea’s appeasement approach towards the PRC was revived especially between 1998 and 2003 under the leadership of former President Kim Dae-jung, by the end of which South Korea’s biggest export market, the US, was overtaken by the PRC.

By the early 2010s, bilateral South Korea-Taiwan relations had taken a new, non-diplomatic form in which they began to flourish once more. These were largely characterised by economic and cultural links: the growth of bilateral trade as well as the increase in cooperation between South Korean and Taiwanese educational institutions. Despite their lack of official diplomatic relations, South Korea and Taiwan hold relatively developed “Track Two” or informal diplomatic relations. This is demonstrated by relevant formats such as the  Taipei-Seoul Forum/Seoul-Taipei Forum (TSF/STF), operated by the Institute of International Relations (IIR) in Taiwan and the Seoul Forum for International Affairs (SFIA) on the South Korean side. It has been emphasised that South Korean delegation has historically consisted of: “high-level government officials, distinguished scholars (potential candidates for government posts), members of parliament, and diplomats”. More recently, the 26th Seoul-Taipei Forum was held in December 2020. Forums such as the TSF are an invaluable component of Taiwan’s Track Two diplomacy for three main reasons: (1) these formats allow Taiwan to gather important information regarding regional development, security trends and international economic dynamics; and (2) they permit Taiwan to establish and consolidate relationships with potential partners; and (3) these formats give Taiwan the opportunity to express its own national interests and its own recommendations for tackling whatever issues happen to be discussed. At the same time, the PRC’s increasing political and economic activity in East Asia became a cause for concern from both countries’ perspectives.

Current situation

The PRC continues to compete with the US for regional hegemony in Northeast Asia, and realists in particular doubt the feasibility of a regional multilateral security framework. In RSCT terms, this means Northeast Asia could fluctuate between being a conflict formation (“a pattern of security interdependence shaped by fear of war and expectations of the use of violence in political relations“) or a security regime (“a pattern of security interdependence still shaped by fear of war and expectations of the use of violence in political relations, but where those fears and expectations are restrained by agreed sets of rules of conduct, and expectations that those rules will be observed”), as predicted by Buzan and Wæver almost two decades ago. A more recent prognosis suggests that an Asian “supercomplex” has appeared, characterised by the merging of East and South Asian security dynamics as well as the continuing presence of the US as a “heavily present outside power”.

The current South Korean approach to the Taiwan Strait issue is, rather understandably, highly nuanced and reflects changes in the distribution of power at the regional and global levels.  At the summit which took place in Washington on 21st May, President Moon Jae-in made an unprecedented call for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” as part of his joint statement with US President Joe Biden. This is a particularly significant development given the current context: South Korea has already been subjected to strict penalties and sanctions by the PRC for over four years due to the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea by the US. The ensuing dispute led to disruption for many South Korean economic actors, ranging from hypermarket chains to automotive manufacturers. It is also worth noting that the US-South Korea joint statement refers to other issues concerning the PRC’s regional influence such as sustainable development in the Mekong region and freedom of navigation in the SCS. In addition, Taiwanese President Tsai In-Wen congratulated Moon on his successful election back in April 2017, outlining in the same message her hopes for bilateral efforts in “promotion of peace and security in the Asia Pacific region”. Even at the official diplomatic level, then, there still seems to be strong “patterns of amity” in bilateral South Korea-Taiwan relations.

Bilateral relations between South Korea and Taiwan are, to a great extent, supported by South Korea’s extensive soft power reserves. This is perhaps best characterised by the spread of South Korean popular culture or so-called Hallyu (“Korean wave”) which includes the export of everything from Korean television dramas to K-pop. Taiwan has notably embraced Hallyu, it has been argued for three main reasons: 1) “confidence”, which could refer to South Korea’s ascendance to membership of the international community as well as the very vivacity and spirit of South Korean pop artists’ performances; 2) Taiwanese admiration for South Koreans’ expression of national pride during events such as the 2002 World Cup; and 3) the Taiwanese affinity for “East Asian sentiment”, whereby forms of South Korean popular culture are often viewed as more acceptable than those of Western popular culture on account of shared cultural values such as Confucianism.

The rewards of this soft power approach for South Korea include the increase of Taiwanese tourists and students in South Korea as well as the notable growth of bilateral trade between 2001 and 2018. Taiwanese exports to South Korea, which range from integrated circuits to petroleum, increased by almost 8% between 2018 and 2019. It has also been noted in early August 2021 that Taiwanese exports to South Korea rocketed by almost 40% since July 2020.

Prospects for the future

Taiwan’s geographical position means that is in South Korea’s interests to ensure an independent and strong Taiwan, on account of sea lines of communication in the SCS. Exaggerations of the physical distance between South Korea and Taiwan for the sake of walking on eggshells with the PRC are easily refuted, as all three states in any case still belong to the same RSC. South Korea’s participation in military exercises such as Talisman Sabre 2021 is, according to a paper published by the Taiwanese think tank Institute for National Defence and Security Research (INDSR), a strong indicator that South Korea would oppose the PRC’s actions in the case of aggression against Taiwan. There are even factors at the domestic level which are already working against Seoul’s previous appeasement strategy vis-à-vis Beijing: increasing anti-China sentiment that is swelling at such a rapid rate that it could potentially contribute to deciding the outcome of the South Korean presidential election in March 2022. It thus appears logical for South Korea to deepen its engagement with Taiwan.

While some have described the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan as an indicator of its unwillingness to stand up for its Asian allies (including Taiwan) as well as emboldening the PRC, there is more than meets the eye. First, the fact that US Asian allies are bound through alliances and security relationships with the US explains the greater level of US interest in the Indo-Pacific than in Afghanistan. Second, far from emboldening the PRC, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could in fact benefit Taiwan in the sense that it has created a new area of security disorder close to home. Simply put, the US remains part of Buzan’s “Asian supercomplex”, and this is unlikely to change.

There is still much unrealised potential for economic cooperation between South Korea and Taiwan, notably in terms of technology. The manufacture and distribution of semiconductors have been paid particular attention as a promising avenue for such cooperation between the two states, with Taiwan’s domination of semiconductor foundry largely assured by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), which reportedly accounted for 54% of total global foundry revenue in 2020. Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) Taipei chief representative Kim Joon-kyu stated at the 45th Korea-Taiwan Economic Cooperation Committee Meeting on 7th September that on account of South Korea’s exported chips to Taiwan are mostly memory chips while the vast majority of those exported from Taiwan to South Korea are non-memory chips, South Korea and Taiwan are to be considered more as partners rather than as rivals in this particular industry. From an RSCT perspective, this is especially promising in terms of maintaining and consolidating “patterns of amity”, most strikingly of all between two members of the Asian liberal democratic order that do not even share official diplomatic relations with one another.

Neither Taiwan nor South Korea are involved in the PRC’s BRI. Far from missing out on investment and development from Beijing, their lack of involvement in the BRI indicates that Seoul and Taipei could involve themselves with alternative partnerships such as the Blue Dot Network (BDN), or perhaps the more recent Back Better World (B3W) Partnership announced by the White House and G7 in June. While some have questioned B3W’s potential to effectively counter the BRI as a whole, the presence and activity of Taiwan and South Korea within such a framework would send a clear message as to their position on the BRI. There is at least already a foundation upon which further progress can be made in this respect: Taiwan and the US signed a memorandum of understanding on the Framework to Strengthen Infrastructure, Finance and Market Cooperation in September 2020. Then, in November 2020, a Taiwan-US Economic Prosperity Partnership Dialogue was held and it was during this event that Taiwan expressed its support not only for the principles of BDN, but also emphasised the common goals shared by the US Indo-Pacific Strategy and Taiwan’s own New Southbound Policy. At the same time, the increased contribution to B3W and the BDN would help consolidate “patterns of amity” at the regional and perhaps inter-regional levels.

Taiwan is beginning to formulate its own soft power approach, perhaps best exemplified by the New Southbound Policy. However, the major issue facing this approach is the debate over what actually constitutes “Taiwanese culture” and how to define it, as shown in disagreements over this notion that run on party lines between the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the KMT (Kuomintang). Even a modest development of Taiwan’s soft power approach could well go hand-in-hand with its other “Track Two” diplomacy approaches, such as think tanks and forums and, in doing so, contribute to “patterns of amity”. South Korea’s Hallyu soft power campaign continues to be positively received in Taiwan. Such positive developments reflect the “patterns of amity” present within the East Asian RSC. However, even this approach possesses drawbacks and limitations. South Korea has a record of competing with its soft power-wielding neighbours (notably Japan and the PRC) within the UNESCO framework for the claiming of cultural items which are shared across the region, including folksongs. Excessive use of certain mechanisms such as UNESCO for enhancing South Korean soft power may end up creating “patterns of enmity” as opposed to “patterns of amity”. So much for the old saying “you can never have too much of a good thing”.

Image: President Tsai Ing-wen exchanged presents with Yang Chang-soo, Representative of the Korean Mission in Taipei (Presidential Office via CC BY 2.0)

About Luke Austin

Luke Austin has recently completed his MA with distinction in Governance and Global Affairs at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He wrote his master’s dissertation on the levels of consistency and contradiction between actual policy-making and political discourse in the framework of EU-Russia relations. Luke also holds a BA in Japanese and Russian from the University of Leeds. He has previously interned for the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow.