The visit to Asia by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) exposed one reality that many people did not realize: The United States cannot count on its ally, the Republic of Korea, for support if war breaks out in the Taiwan Straits.
The United States, as Pelosi’s visit demonstrated conclusively, could not base forces in South Korea for action anywhere in the region for any purpose other than the defense of South Korea. U.S. forces would have to rely on their bases in Japan and Guam from which to defend Taiwan against invasion by China from the mainland.
That shocking fact became evident when Pelosi visited South Korea after her big day in Taiwan. No South Korean delegation was on hand to greet her at the airport, as might have been expected, and President Yoon Suk-yeol managed to be on vacation during her visit, though he did find time to chat with her for 40 minutes on the phone before she and her entourage, including five other members of Congress, went to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.
Perhaps Yoon may have been smart not to see her, considering that his foes in the Minjoo, or Democratic Party, still dominate the National Assembly and oppose much of what he’s doing to repair U.S.-Korea relations, which were severely compromised during the presidency of his progressive predecessor, Moon Jae-in. Pelosi, after all, is a leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S. — not quite the equivalent of Korea’s Democratic Party but definitely not conservative. Thus it may have been a good idea for Korea, on an official level, to have treated her visit coolly.
In that spirit, Pelosi was told in advance not to say a word about Taiwan or the dangerous military exercises that China’s President Xi Jinping ordered in retaliation for her refusal to bow to warnings not to visit the independent island state. That’s regrettable, since she and Yoon could have talked about what Taiwan needs to stand up to China.
Tiny Taiwan, population 23.5 million, will have to acquire more and better arms for defense against China, population 1.4 billion, and the United States will have to strengthen its commitment to defend Taiwan. Also, Taiwan will have to unify its own people more effectively, weeding out pro-China elements who would betray the island’s independence.
All that should be clear from the nature of the exercises in which China showed off its rising military might perilously close to Taiwan’s shores. Theoretically, it should be possible for South Korea, a major manufacturer and exporter of arms, to deluge Taiwan with weapons ranging from rifles to tanks — though South Korea’s concerns about China would seem to rule out such business with Taiwan.
The differences between the United States and South Korea on Taiwan and China are disturbing when you consider the importance of U.S. bases in Korea. Camp Humphreys, 40 miles south of Seoul, is America’s biggest overseas base, the home of most of the 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea. Nearby Osan Air Base is home of the Seventh U.S. Air Force, next in importance to the U.S. base at Kadena, home of the Fifth U.S. Air Force on Okinawa, the southernmost Japanese prefecture.
American commanders over the years have told me that U.S. forces in Korea could be deployed elsewhere as needed, but Pelosi’s visit shows that’s not the case. South Korea wants nothing to do with the defense of Taiwan against China, even though Korea and Taiwan have much in common. They are both industrious capitalist states, and they both, after much turmoil, are functioning democracies with elections for president and legislatures — in Korea the National Assembly and in Taiwan the yuan, or parliament.
For that reason alone, it’s regrettable that Korea cannot be counted on to rush to Taiwan’s defense in a showdown. As Pelosi’s visit made clear, however, South Korea’s leadership is too scared of antagonizing China, its biggest trading partner, to want to join in defending Taiwan against bullying by the mainland. Korea’s biggest concern is that war on Taiwan would spread to the Korean peninsula, where China would fight for North Korea, as it did in the Korean War.
The sudden realization that Korea’s alliance with the U.S. does not extend beyond Korea’s borders contrasts with Japan’s obvious willingness to stand up against China over Taiwan. Japanese complexes and concerns are entirely different from those of South Korea.
The Japanese ruled Taiwan after defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, and they left behind quite different memories in Taiwan than they did while ruling Korea for 35 years until the end of World War II. Taiwanese do not view the Japanese era with the same bitterness as do Koreans, who were not only treated more severely and deprived of basic rights but also forced to serve as de facto slaves of Japanese companies and, in the case of Korean females, exploited as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.
Japanese also have another concern not shared by Koreans. That is, five Chinese missiles fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 kilometers beyond the southernmost small Japanese island. Japanese also tenaciously hold on to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands against constant Chinese demands and harassment by “fishing boats” and intimidation flights by Chinese fighter planes. The Senkakus, which the Chinese call Diaoyu, are much closer to Taiwan than they are to Okinawa even though they’re technically part of Okinawa prefecture.
The real danger, though, is that differences over Taiwan could drive the Japanese and Koreans even further apart than they are already. Japan’s conservative leaders could use war over Taiwan as the perfect excuse for revising, if not dropping, Article 9 of the “peace constitution” adopted during the American military occupation in 1947 that bans Japanese forces from engaging in any war overseas.
While the Americans and Japanese might fight in a regional conflagration over Taiwan, the Koreans, by refusing to join on their side, could undermine the Asian defense network. That’s an upsetting lesson from Pelosi’s visit to the region. She may have enforced the right of Americans to visit Taiwan, whatever China’s rulers may think, and the Chinese certainly showed capacity for intimidating and bullying Taiwan, but the diplomats, politicians and media missed the significance of the visit as a test of Korea’s position.
Korean officials say Korea’s overwhelming concern must be its “national interest.” No one would dispute that assertion. Pelosi’s visit showed that Korea’s interests in China and Taiwan do not align with those of the United States and Japan.
Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.