South Korea would expect U.S. to intervene if China invades Taiwan, official says

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea would expect the U.S. to respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, according to a South Korean official.

Why it matters: China’s threats to bring the self-governing island under its control, by force if necessary, present perhaps the most likely scenario for war with the U.S. As a U.S. ally, South Korea would be wary of getting pulled into such a conflict, the official said, but would worry about its own security if the U.S. did not respond with force.

Setting the scene: The official, who declined to be named, made the comments during a discussion of the new South Korean administration’s foreign policy priorities with a small group of reporters in Seoul.

  • The official said China currently poses security “risks” to South Korea but not a direct “threat.” However, the official cited a potential incident in the Taiwan Strait as a scenario that could change that equation.
  • Asked by Axios whether Seoul would want the U.S. to respond militarily to an invasion, the official said South Korea was “more comfortable” with the idea that the U.S. would respond — even though that would likely lead to a request for military support from the U.S. and Japan, a fellow U.S. ally.
  • The official did not say whether South Korea would be willing to send its own troops.

What they’re saying: If the U.S. stood aside over Taiwan, it would be seen as a signal that the U.S. might not defend South Korea against an attack from the North, the official said.

  • “We probably take for granted that if China attacks Taiwan, the U.S. will engage,” the official added.

Between the lines: The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with South Korea, but no commitment to defend Taiwan or set position as to whether it would do so.

  • Even as President Biden has said three times that the U.S. would defend Taiwan, the White House continues to insist there has been no change in its “strategic ambiguity” policy.
  • China has objected forcefully to rhetoric and actions from the U.S. that it sees as overstepping the “One China Policy,” under which the U.S. recognizes China’s sovereignty but takes no position as to whether Taiwan is part of China.
  • Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has taken increasingly bellicose positions about returning Taiwan to its control. However, South Korean officials are generally less inclined than some in Washington to believe a war over Taiwan is likely in the near-term.

State of play: South Korean officials say the country’s military spends the vast majority of its time worrying about North Korea, with China in a distant second on the priority list.

  • Seoul will continue to focus more on China over time — in part out of a sense of responsibility as a U.S. ally — but does not see any indication that China would consider attacking South Korea, the official said.

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