|South Korea has not been invested much in the Cross-Strait issue referring to China-Taiwan affairs, given its top external priority in terms of security has been North Korea. gettyimagesbank|
Conservative president-elect has pledged greater alliance with US as Cross-Strait tensions escalate
By Kim Bo-eun
HONG KONG ― Despite its relative geographic proximity to other Northeast Asian countries, Taiwan has not featured much as an important issue on the agenda of South Korean governments in past decades.
Externally, South Korea has been preoccupied with its Northern neighbor and the Cross-Strait issue ― referring to affairs between China and Taiwan ― seems almost irrelevant to the country's security. Nonetheless, with Cross-Strait tensions building against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, experts believe that this is now becoming a geopolitical factor that South Korea can no longer afford to ignore.
China claims the self-ruling island of Taiwan under its "One China" principle. Chinese President Xi Jinping stated last year that "reunification" with Taiwan should be accomplished.
Analysts state that China will be closely observing the developments of the Russian invasion, for lessons that could potentially be applied in case it decides to invade Taiwan.
Given that the war has become a protracted conflict, plus the damaging effects of the sanctions imposed by the West and its allies, analysts think that any action by China against Taiwan will likely be taken after deliberation as well as making sure that its military is well prepared.
In the meantime, the U.S. has stepped up support for Taiwan in recent years. A group of U.S. lawmakers met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei last week, pledging support for the island democracy, to which Beijing responded with strong condemnation and large-scale military drills around Taiwan. This was the latest of a series of high-level visits by the U.S. to Taiwan.
|Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, seventh from left, poses with U.S. lawmakers on their visit to Taipei on April 15. AFP-Yonhap|
Pamela Kennedy, a research analyst at U.S. think tank Stimson's East Asia Program, noted frequent statements by U.S. political leaders in support of "maintaining the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait," and U.S. officials' visits to Taiwan confirming "the shared values of the two democracies." But the U.S. has not been clear on its level of involvement in the case of a Taiwan contingency.
"There is no guarantee of U.S. action, but Beijing cannot discount it especially when the U.S. maintains bases across the region," Kennedy said in an email. "Another important factor is the perspective of Japan. The U.S. is obligated to defend against any attack on Japanese sovereign territory, including Japan's southwestern islands near Taiwan."
South Korea's stance on Taiwan
Seoul has maintained unofficial relations with Taipei, since establishing diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1992 when it severed relations with Taipei. Taiwan now only has official diplomatic relations with about a dozen small countries in the Pacific, Caribbean, South America and Southern Africa.
Broader support for Taiwan hinges on a number of factors ― key international organizations such as the United Nations have not granted membership for the island. China as the world's second-largest economy with deep trade relations with major countries is another looming factor.
South Korea's government under President Moon Jae-in granted China a weighty role not only for trade but also for relations with North Korea.
Attention was drawn to Moon's joint statement with U.S. President Joe Biden in May last year, which for the first time contained wording on the Taiwan Strait issue.
However, the government immediately downplayed its significance, referring to it as "general expressions."
|Taiwan's Digital Minister Audrey Tang / Yonhap|
There was more Taiwan-related controversy in December, when Taiwan's Digital Minister Audrey Tang's speech for a virtual government event was cancelled only hours prior to the address.
The ill-mannered move was seen as a decision taking China into account. In 2014, Tang took part in a civic movement protesting a trade deal between Taiwan and China, known as the Sunflower Movement.
"The kind of 'strategic ambiguity' stance taken by Moon will not work. Actually, it did not work during Moon's presidency either," Lee Seong-hyon, visiting scholar at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said in an email.
He noted that South Korea spent a "lost decade" of complacency, focused on domestic politics and North Korea.
"[South] Korea is completely unprepared for a seismic U.S.-China geopolitical shift that has been unfolding outside the Korean Peninsula," said Lee, also a senior fellow at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. "It never imagined that the 'faraway' Taiwan issue will have any relevance to [South] Korea's own security."
Lee said Taiwan is important for South Korea, stating "in the case Taiwan goes down, it would practically mean the demise of U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific region."
|South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks on the phone with U.S. President Joe Biden at his home in southern Seoul, following his election on March 10. Provided by People Power Party|
Given evolving geopolitical circumstances, and South Korea's election of new conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol, who has pledged greater alignment with the U.S., the incoming administration could face pressure to take a stance.
This will prove to be tricky for South Korea as China is its largest trading partner. Any shift in support of Taiwan would undoubtedly irk China, which is expected to present damaging implications for South Korea.
"No doubt, Yoon will align more closely with the U.S. thinking on China and its stance on Taiwan," Lee said, adding this would require efforts to minimize damage with China.
"This requires a track record of accruing credibility with China and trusted messengers. Yoon's foreign policy team has to start over. There's a bumpy road ahead."