UST’s Dr. Hans Stockton Offers Observations on U.S. – South Korea Relations from Asia Society Expert Panel
Dean of UST’s Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences & Global Studies, Dr. Hans Stockton, who also is director of UST’s Taiwan & East Asia Studies Program, served on an Asia Society panel about U.S.- South Korea relations. Held on May 20, 2021, only days before the President of South Korea visited Washington, D.C., the three-person panel was completed by the Consul General of the Republic of Korea in Houston, Ambassador Myung-Soo Ahn, and Assistant Professor and Director of Political Science at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, Dr. Se-Hyoung Yi.
Panel Discussed Key Issues
The in-person and online program drew high interest and dealt with key issues. They included China’s increasing influence in East Asia, U.S. involvement in that region, the effect on relations between Japan and South Korea, and South Korea’s economic clout with the U.S. and elsewhere.
Stockton brought his considerable East Asia expertise to bear when the moderator asked why South Korea was hesitant about overtly supporting U.S. efforts to contain China by joining the informal strategic dialogue between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India (also known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad”).
Identifying South Korea’s Peace Focus
Stockton observed that South Korea’s policy positions in the region focus on peace for the peninsula through the denuclearization of North Korea. “So getting caught up in the U.S. hegemonic struggle with China…is a distraction…The South Koreans not only want to keep themselves focused but keep the Americans focused on the immediate goal in the Korean Peninsula.”
The recognized authority on East Asia matters also offered that South Korea is reluctant to do anything that would antagonize or alienate China.
“The South Korean economy, [like] everyone in that neighborhood, is highly hinged to the China economy.”
A Damaging Flip-flopping of U.S. Policy
Later, after Ambassador Ahn touched on how U.S. policy flipped for four years when Trump became president and flipped again after the last election, Stockton acknowledged the understandable feelings of uncertainty and discomfort and described the present climate as one that offers clarity as we advance.
“[It offers] some degree, some extent, of predictability in U.S. foreign policy, at least for the next three-and-a-half years,” he said.
Stockton elaborated on his thoughts, adding, “The pendulum has really swung in terms of the multilateralism of Obama to the bilateralism of Trump. From the values-driven foreign policy of Obama to the transactional, fairly values-free foreign policy of the Trump administration. Obviously, it makes our allies very uncomfortable.”
Stockton Offers Optimistic Outlook
Regardless, he expressed optimism about the role of the U.S. in having South Korea and Japan cooperate.
“I’m very optimistic. Look at where an American president and executive branch puts their time, which is the most valuable resource they have in the first four months. So, much of it has been dedicated to reestablishing that dialogue and that relationship with both South Korea and Japan. But also, to encouraging the trilateral conversations that I very much hope will come.”
He recommended that the U.S. not allow itself to be drawn into the historical disputes that Japan and South Korea have with each other, letting them resolve those issues themselves. Moreover, he wants to see the U.S. re-engaging both powers, getting back to trade and getting back to the bilateral strategic commitments the three countries have with each other. This approach, he indicated, would help to maintain peace and stability in the area.
South Korea’s Economic Power Card
Finally, Stockton weighed in on South Korea’s expanding economic influence as a semiconductor powerhouse. He characterized it as being of “growing importance in any kind of containment policy of China in the Pacific.”
“We’re all facing shortages of microchips these days. For new reasons and in new ways, South Korea is ever more important. The Moon administration announced the K-Semiconductor Belt Project, [with] billions of dollars going into fortifying South Korea’s semiconductor infrastructure. I think things like that are going to give South Korea incredible momentum as well as leverage in those conversations.”
About the Asia Society
The mission of the Asia Society is to be a leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders and institutions of Asia and the West.