South Korea would benefit from joining a Quad+

The time has come for South Korea to take the leap and join an expanded Quad, or Quad+. The tangible and potential benefits of such a decision outweigh any possible negative effects. Above all, joining a Quad+ would strengthen the role of South Korea in regional and global affairs, potentially helping provide extra support for Seoul to achieve its foreign policy goals.

The Donald Trump administration certainly courted the Moon Jae-in government to become part of an expanded Quad. But it did not make sense for Seoul to join then. To begin with, Trump openly cast doubt on the usefulness of the ROK-U.S. alliance, so there was little incentive for Seoul to support other American initiatives. In addition, the Trump administration presented the Quad in terms of confrontation with China. This is not South Korean policy. There was no reason for Seoul to join an openly anti-China organization.

But the situation has changed now.

The Joe Biden administration sees the Quad, above all, as a coalition of like-minded countries supporting a ‘free and open’ and rules-based Indo-Pacific. In other words, a Quad+ would be a grouping based on shared values, rather than explicitly in opposition to China. This is a clever move by the Biden administration. And it is a proposition that Seoul can support.

In fact, last year South Korea did not hesitate to join ad hoc Quad+ meetings focusing on sharing knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. These meetings also involved New Zealand and Vietnam, two other countries usually discussed as potential Quad+ members, along with Indonesia. In other words, past experience suggests that the Quad+ would focus on cooperation among its members and involve several countries with a more nuanced approach towards China. If the Biden administration builds on this template, this would work well for South Korea.

Seoul would also join any Quad+ from a position of strength. Besides the small number of ad hoc Quad+ meetings held last year, the institution has failed to attract new members. Having South Korea as a member would enhance the credibility of an expanded Quad. Seoul’s position as a rich and robust democracy – the very same reason why it has been invited to join this year’s G7 – would provide a boost to any Quad+.

And what would South Korea get from becoming part of a more permanent Quad+?

To begin with, Seoul would further strengthen its voice in regional and global affairs. The voice of five or more Quad members carries more weight than the voice of a single country. Especially if one of those voices is that of the U.S., which – let’s not forget – remains one of the top two powers in the Asia-Pacific. In the same way that other capitals will take notice of any joint statement that Seoul may issue as part of this year’s expanded G7, so they would with Quad+ joint positions.

In addition, becoming part of an expanded Quad would boost the image of South Korea as a democratic country working together with fellow democracies. The Moon government is not the first in South Korea to emphasize democracy as part of the basis of the country’s foreign policy. It won’t be the last either. Walking the walk by joining a club of fellow democracies would add credibility and gravitas to this emphasis on democracy.

Finally, membership of a Quad+ could be used by South Korea as a bargaining chip to gather support for its other foreign policy goals, including Moon’s engagement policy towards North Korea. If this sounds transactional, it is because it is. But such is often the nature of foreign relations. Being part of an expanded Quad would show Seoul’s support for security initiatives that are important to Washington. In return, South Korea could ask for U.S. support for its core foreign policy goals.

The reaction by China to South Korea joining a Quad+ is of course the main concern for the Moon government to consider whether this would be a wise move. The example of THAAD remains fresh in the memories of South Korean policymakers. Including the lack of support from the Barack Obama administration when Seoul had to confront Beijing’s economic coercion. For some, that hurt as much as Chinese unofficial economic sanctions.

But Quad+ membership need not lead to Chinese economic retaliation. After all, Japan is one of the founding members of Quad and its relations with China have not suffered as a result of it. Meanwhile, Australia’s current trade conflict with China is not directly linked to its membership of Quad. An expanded Quad would be less China-focused, which would make it less likely that Beijing would retaliate.

Plus, Seoul has no intention to suddenly take a confrontational approach towards Beijing. There are areas for cooperation and mutual benefit that South Korea will continue to emphasize. RCEP proves this. The still-open invitation for Xi Jinping to visit South Korea also does.

In any case, Seoul could insist that Washington provides diplomatic and – if necessary – economic support were Beijing to retaliate as a result of South Korea joining a Quad+. This would help assuage possible South Korean concerns about joining the organization.

As former Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha stated last September, South Korea has ‘leverage’ in the U.S.-China rivalry and can use ‘partnerships with like-minded friends and countries’ to promote its foreign policy interests. Joining an expanded Quad would add a new partnership to Seoul’s toolkit, with its leverage helping to shield it from any potential negative effects from membership. Everything considered, joining the Quad+ would be a beneficial move for South Korea.

Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Centre for Diplomacy, Security and Strategy, the Brussels School of Governance and Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at King’s College London.