While Seoul and Washington currently agree on using high-level diplomacy to encourage North Korea to denuclearize, South Korean and US approaches toward China differ and could become a source of friction between the two allies. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has confronted China through tariffs on Chinese imports and identified China as a near-peer adversary. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made efforts to end a dispute with China over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and indicated openness to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Public preferences in both the United States and South Korea are not necessarily aligned with their own governments’ policies toward China. Chicago Council and Asan Institute surveys conducted in 2019 find that both South Koreans and Americans see a strengthened US-ROK alliance as an asset in dealing with China, suggesting that Washington and Seoul can afford to strengthen coordination between their policies toward China.
■ While Americans are divided over US tariffs on Chinese goods (49% support, 47% oppose), they decidedly prefer a cooperative approach toward Beijing. Sixty-eight percent of Americans say the United States should undertake friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than try to limit Chinese power.
■ South Koreans are generally more cautious in dealing with China. While half prefer that South Korea undertake friendly cooperation (52%) with China, 40 percent want to actively work to limit Beijing’s power.
■ Three-quarters of South Korean respondents (78%) say that South Korea should prioritize strengthening ties with the United States over those with China, whereas 14 percent say ties should be strengthened with China over the United States.
■ In 2018, 66 percent of Americans said the United States should prioritize building up strong relations with Japan and South Korea over relations with China. Only 26 percent favored building a new partnership with China over Asian allies.