How the outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election could impact South Korea

Posted on : 2024-01-15 17:53 KST Modified on : 2024-01-15 17:53 KST
With a pro-US politician winning Taiwan’s top office, South Korea will likely face a bigger diplomatic burden in managing its relationship with China
Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, waves to supporters after winning the election the night of Jan. 13. (AP/Yonhap)
Lai Ching-te, the presidential candidate for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, waves to supporters after winning the election the night of Jan. 13. (AP/Yonhap)

Amid speculation that cross-strait relations are poised to face growing instability in the wake of pro-US, anti-China Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Lai Ching-te’s win in Taiwan’s presidential election last weekend, attention is turning to the potential ramifications for the Korean Peninsula, including Seoul’s relationship with Beijing.

Experts predicted that South Korea may face stronger pressure to side with the US position.

Commenting Sunday on the results of the Taiwanese presidential election the day before, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs confined its remarks to generalities.

“We hope that peace and stability are maintained around the Taiwan Strait and that cross-strait relations progress in a peaceful way,” it said, adding that there had been “no change in our administration’s basic position on Taiwan.”

This read as a reaffirmation that the administration remains unchanged in its position of maintaining unofficial relations with Taipei while respecting the “One China” principle.

With the victory for Lai — a candidate for the ruling DPP who advocates Taiwanese independence and campaigned on calls to “uphold democracy” — analysts predicted relations between Taipei and Beijing will remain tense.

Some also foresaw continued competition and conflict between the US and China with the election of a pro-US candidate in an election that observers had seen as a “proxy battle” between Washington and Beijing.

This has sparked fears that the South Korean government could end up facing a bigger diplomatic burden after its relatively lax approach to managing relations with China while pursuing a “values diplomacy” approach of closeness with the US and Japan.

The election of Lai as a candidate emphasizing solidarity with democratic states had experts predicting a more complex set of diplomatic calculations ahead for South Korea, which potentially faces an intensifying opposition between liberal and authoritarian blocs at a time when it has turned its back on North Korea.

The biggest dilemma concerns managing its relationship with Beijing.

“As the US and Japan expand their cooperation on Taiwan, they could make strong demands for South Korea to play a role,” said Chung Jae-hung, the director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute, a diplomacy and security think tank. 

“There is a need to be more cautious in consideration of the relationship between South Korea and China, but if this sort of bloc-based situation progresses, that will leave South Korea in a difficult situation where it has to make a choice,” he predicted.

In other words, a situation where the souring of cross-strait relations translates into deeper conflict for the US and China would put South Korea in an awkward position where it faces greater pressure to side with Washington.

Analysts also said Seoul now finds itself with less room for diplomatic maneuvering, having focused so far on “values diplomacy” and strengthening ties with liberal countries.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has sparked vehement objections from Beijing with his assertive statements about the Taiwan issue, including remarks in an April 2023 Reuters interview where he voiced opposition to “attempts to change the status quo [in the Taiwan Strait] by force.”

Chung said such comments could make managing ties with China difficult. “South Korea has said it intends to manage its relationship with China, but the current administration’s very position is clearly one of stronger solidarity with the liberal bloc, and since it has made statements about Taiwan numerous times, it’s now in a dilemma where it can’t really walk those back,” the director said. 

Another factor is the need for efforts by the administration to ensure that South Korea is not left behind in the semiconductor competition and establishment of global supply chains as cross-strait tensions continue.

“The US may start accelerating its efforts to operate ‘Chip 4’ [a framework consisting of the US, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan] as a semiconductor alliance under its own leadership,” predicted Kim Yong-shin, a professor of Chinese studies at Inha University.

“China is also going to try to cooperate with South Korean businesses in its semiconductor competition with the US, and situations like this demand that the South Korean government provide suitable guidance in light of the potential impact on South Korean businesses,” he argued.

Other observers predicted that Taiwan, the US and China might all focus on preserving the status quo rather than allowing relations to immediately sour.

Kim Heung-kyu, the director of the US-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, noted that while the DPP won the Taiwanese presidency, it did not emerge as the top party in the concurrent legislative election.

“The people of Taiwan opted for a delicate way of preserving the status quo, and Lai Ching-te is going to have difficulties pursuing overt changes to that status quo,” he suggested.

Moon Heung-ho, a professor at the Hanyang University Graduate School of International Studies, observed, “China is inextricably tied to Taiwan in terms of interchange and economic cooperation, and breaking that off carries risks.”

Yeon Won-ho, the director of the economic security team at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, said, “The best situation for South Korea would be one where the status quo is maintained, without China, Taiwan or the US attempting any radical changes to the situation.”

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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