South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol arrived in Washington this week for his first state visit to the United States. He met with President Joe Biden, is to deliver a speech at Harvard University, and address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. Although he will be one of America’s most well-received world leaders, the trip will be a difficult test for Yoon.
More than at any time in recent history, the specter of a nuclear exchange hangs over humanity. South Korea depends on the United States as its main security ally against a de facto nuclear North Korea. To complicate matters, the South also relies on China as its largest trading partner. China, in turn, is not only North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s main enabler; it has become increasingly aggressive and coercive toward its democratic neighbors.
Over the past two decades, many countries have tried to follow the formula of “security dependence on the United States” and “economic dependence on China,” struggling to maneuver between these two superpowers. But as China has become more proactive in using its economic power to bend the world to its will, the formula has become increasingly untenable. Yoon’s presidency heralds a shift in policy. During Biden’s visit to Seoul last May, Yoon described the U.S.–South Korean partnership as an “economic security” alliance, emphasizing that “the economy is security, and security is the economy.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has at least partially confirmed Yoon’s prescience. It is abundantly clear that several economic factors have made the democratic world vulnerable to a burgeoning Russia-China alliance, including Europe’s overdependence on Russian oil, gas, and grain and China’s unprincipled trade tactics. All together, these factors encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade its democratic neighbor.
The war in Ukraine has shattered many rosy predictions about potential conflicts in East Asia. It has proven foolish to believe that strong economic ties with China, along with military links to Washington will protect you. Taiwan is more vulnerable to China than ever, and such ties will not protect Seoul or Tokyo from North Korean nuclear missiles. The reality is much worse than many would like to believe. The Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula are the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, and the eruption of either could plunge the entire world into an economic and humanitarian disaster. Even more frightening, the two hotspots are so inextricably linked that the eruption of one would almost certainly trigger the eruption of the other. For this reason alone, getting ahead of the risk curve in East Asia is not only necessary but imperative.
The harsh reality is that there is no effective community of democratic countries in the region to coordinate efforts to deter or mitigate such risks. There is no NATO or European Union that can take collective action as has happened in the West over Ukraine, however unsatisfactory the results have been. Given the commendable détente between South Korea and Japan and the urgent need to expand cooperation in various fields in the face of rising global tensions, it is time for these nations to join Taiwan and the United States in an “economic NATO” based on democratic values.
An “economic NATO” would perform the following functions:
First, it would establish mechanisms for applying NATO’s Article 5 principle of mutual defense to the economic sphere. Whenever China uses economic coercion to bully a member of the alliance, especially on values-related issues, others should automatically and immediately ease the economic pain of the bullied member.
Second, an “economic NATO” would establish mechanisms for economic security among these four democratic nations, including but not limited to joint efforts to strengthen the resilience of supply chains and to develop and safeguard high technology.
There is a bit of a paradox, unfortunately. The overdependence of these economies on China both makes these allies reluctant to establish the mechanisms proposed above, while showing why they are urgently needed. For example, U.S. export controls that prevent chipmakers from exporting advanced equipment into China pose a serious conundrum for South Korea’s Samsung and SK Hynix. Both companies depend on China as a key market and manufacturing base for their memory chips.
This leads to the third function that an “economic NATO” in East Asia should perform.
The alliance would need to design and implement concrete measures to help build alternative economic power centers in the region and around the globe.
On his state visit to the U.S., Yoon will be accompanied by more than 120 senior executives from top companies such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor Company. Part of their mission is to help supply chains to become less dependent on China for semiconductors. This is an important step.
The fourth provision of an “economic NATO” would be to encourage and support the liberalization and democratization of autocratic countries, pushing for greater liberalism and a strengthened rules-based order in East Asia.
Such a successful alliance of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States can serve as a model and gradually expand to include the entire democratic world. A values-based “economic NATO” is necessary and imperative if peace, prosperity, freedom, and stability are to be protected and promoted in East Asia and throughout the world.
Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.
Yonghun Kim, a Korean American, is a senior advisor at the Center for Civic Culture Studies.