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Thursday 7 September 2023

South Korea's Role in a Taiwan Contingency: Balancing Deterrence and Support

Ashraf Qureshi. 

South Korea's stance on its involvement in a Taiwan contingency has been characterized by a lack of explicit commitment. There is a possibility that South Korea would not engaged in discussions with the United States about this issue. However open-source information suggests a more nuanced perspective.

In a Taiwan contingency, South Korea should focus on deterring North Korea's aggression while providing rear area support for U.S. operations. But how can South Korea effectively balance these responsibilities?

South Korea's primary role would be providing real area support, which includes elements such as base access, provision of ammunition, non-combat evacuations, and support for reconnaissance capabilities. South Korea's advanced technology in unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned surface vessels can significantly augment U.S. reconnaissance efforts. Moreover, South Korea can assist in maintaining and servicing U.S. weapons systems like F-16 and F-35 aircraft.

A critical aspect of South Korea's role in a Taiwan contingency would be ensuring that its military capabilities remain robust enough to provide support effectively. The U.S. could consider significant support, such as supporting South Korea's acquisition of nuclear submarines.

There has been speculation about whether South Korea's involvement in a Taiwan contingency would lead to a decoupling of its missions or capabilities from those related to the Korean Peninsula. However, it is not decoupling but a division of labor and personnel sharing. The reality is that Taiwan and Korean Peninsula contingencies are increasingly interconnected, necessitating a fresh approach to alliance management.

There appears a gradual shift in South Korea's position. South Korean leaders acknowledge the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Further evolution in South Korea's stance, as evidenced by the growing alignment with the U.S. position can also happen.

Public opinion in South Korea regarding its involvement in a Taiwan contingency presents an intriguing aspect. Surprisingly, a survey conducted by the East Asia Institute revealed that only 18% of South Korean respondents opposed South Korea's involvement.

The majority either supported South Korea's participation or favored limited involvement through rear area support. This can be interpreted as reflecting South Korean citizens' realist instincts, as they acknowledge the potential inevitability of involvement in a crisis, coupled with a strong desire to prevent military conflict.

China's response to South Korea providing rear area support in a Taiwan contingency can be complex. While direct South Korean involvement in warfighting would likely trigger Chinese retaliation, provision of rear area support would allow China to choose whether to attack South Korean bases.  

This dilemma sheds light on the intricate web of considerations surrounding South Korea's role in a Taiwan contingency. As South Korea navigates this challenging landscape, the balance between deterring North Korea's aggression and providing rear area support for the United States remains a critical element in maintaining regional stability and peace. Public opinion, evolving government positions, and China's reactions all play pivotal roles in shaping South Korea's stance in this complex geopolitical scenario.
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