22 February 2019
Victor Cha, a former US State Department advisor, is said to be the leading candidate for appointment as Washington's next ambassador to South Korea. Photo:
Victor Cha, a former US State Department advisor, is said to be the leading candidate for appointment as Washington's next ambassador to South Korea. Photo:

What if the hawkish Victor Cha is named US envoy to Seoul?

As tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to boil, President Donald Trump’s choice for the next US ambassador to Seoul has become a subject of particular interest both in the academic and diplomatic circles.

So far among all the potential candidates, Victor Cha, a Korean-American and a renowned international relations expert, appears to be the biggest favorite in the race for the job.

Having obtained his PhD in political science at the Columbia University, Cha has taught at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown Universities over the years, and often appeared on CNN as guest commentator. In the meantime, he is also currently a senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington, D.C.

At first glance it appears there is nothing particularly impressive about Cha’s resume. However, unlike most other international relations academics who spend most of their time teaching and writing books, Cha has been actively involved in the actual formulation of US foreign policies towards Northeast Asia over the past decade.

For example, between 2004 and 2007, Cha served as an advisor to the National Security Council (NSC) under the Bush administration, specializing in security issues concerning the Korean peninsula and Japan.

What is more, Cha has a definite advantage over other ambassador hopefuls. Apart from his strong academic qualifications, he has a solid and proven track record in mediating crises on the Korean peninsula: Cha was once appointed as the second in charge of the US delegation during the six-party talks.

And it is exactly his “actual combat experience” in handling the Korean peninsula crisis that makes him stand out from the rest of the candidates and catch President Trump’s attention.

As far as Cha’s ideology and theories on international relations are concerned, he has remained a strong advocate of the so-called “powerplay” concept in diplomacy throughout his career, under which he proposes that the it would be in Washington’s best interests to establish separate bilateral alliances with the East Asian allies rather than set up a single, multilateral military alliance with a unified command structure like the NATO in Europe.

The reason, he argues, is that Washington could risk being dragged into regional conflicts in East Asia that are unrelated to any direct US national interest if it established a single and multilateral military alliance with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. With strong US support and military presence, these countries could be emboldened to toughen their stance or even act over-aggressively towards their potential enemies such as North Korea and China.

He believes an Asian version of the NATO would only unnecessarily exacerbate the security burden of the US and work against its global strategic interests.

However, in contrast, by establishing bilateral alliances separately with Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei, Washington can make sure it can always dictate to them and order them to exercise restraint under all circumstances, given America’s overwhelming military and economic strength over them, thereby minimizing the possibility of these Asian allies acting recklessly and ensuring that the US will not be “hijacked” by a single and multilateral collective security mechanism like that in Europe.

Meanwhile, Cha has remained hawkish towards Pyongyang, believing that dialogue alone is unlikely to make any difference on the Korean peninsula. Rather, he asserts, the US and its allies should take a tougher stance towards the Kim Jong-un regime in order to deter it from escalating its aggression.

However, in the meantime, Cha also takes the view that despite his provocative and seemingly crazy moves, the North Korean leader is in fact a resourceful and cool-headed strategic thinker who is very good at maximizing his gains through bluffing and blustering.

Cha’s views on diplomacy pretty much correspond to Trump’s pledge to reduce Washington’s overseas security commitments. As such, if he is eventually named the new US envoy to Seoul, his “powerplay” theory is likely to become the guiding principle for American foreign policies toward the region.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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