Korea stays awkwardly on fence amid clashes, coordination between US and China

Posted on : 2022-08-05 17:46 KST Modified on : 2022-08-05 17:46 KST
Despite tensions being at an all-time high, neither the US nor China appears to have crossed any proverbial red lines over the US House speaker’s visit to Taiwan
A Chinese military helicopter flies off the coast of Fujian Province, across the strait to Taiwan, on Aug. 4. (AFP/Yonhap News)
A Chinese military helicopter flies off the coast of Fujian Province, across the strait to Taiwan, on Aug. 4. (AFP/Yonhap News)

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's Asia tour, which was capped off with visits to South Korea and Japan after a prior stopover in Taipei, is causing Taiwan significant hardship.

However, even after the US lawmaker’s visit to Taiwan this week, the US and China seem to not have crossed each other’s red lines. Instead, the diplomatic and economic costs that resulted from the visit were left mainly to be borne by Taipei.

The situation recalls what happened to South Korea back in 2017, when Korea endured massive economic retaliation from China after allowing the US military to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system on the peninsula.

Surrounding major ports and practically creating a blockade around Taiwan, China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) began conducting three-day joint exercises by its army, naval, and air forces starting Thursday.

China’s exercises included missile launches, marking the first time China fired missiles over the self-governing island. As a result of this incident, Chinese provocations across the median line of the Taiwan Strait are expected to become increasingly commonplace.

This shows how, after Pelosi’s stay, the whole of Taiwan has had to shoulder the brunt of China’s overt military threats.

Besides military threats, on Wednesday, Beijing also announced retaliatory economic measures against Taiwan. The Chinese government listed the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund as organizations seeking independence and banned any cooperation with them. Imports of Taiwanese agricultural products and seafood have also been halted for the time being.

However, besides harsh words hurled at Pelosi and the US — whom China sees as the ones who escalated tensions — Beijing has yet to take any concrete countermeasures.

Washington’s response has been similar. Even though China is besieging Taiwan and applying outright military pressure, the US has only verbally criticized Beijing and has refrained from responding in a more direct way.

According to a tweet posted from the official POTUS Twitter account on Wednesday, Joe Biden discussed the US’ “support of a free and open Indo-Pacific and our continued support for Ukraine in response to Putin’s war” during a secure phone call with his national security team that day. Biden is currently isolating after testing positive for COVID-19.

Although the meeting seems to have included discussions on countermeasures to China’s military drills, the US has repeatedly reassured that it will not take any military actions against China.

“We will not take the bait or engage in saber rattling,” John Kirby, the White House National Security Council’s (NSC) coordinator for strategic communications, said during a briefing on Monday.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan also stressed that the US is “not looking to escalate” tensions with China in an interview with NPR on Wednesday.

Details about the behind-the-scenes efforts between the US and China to soften the blow ahead of Pelosi’s Taiwan visit are also coming to light.

According to a senior US State Department official, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had informed China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, that the decision regarding Pelosi’s possible visit to Taiwan was imminent during a gathering of the top diplomats from G20 nations in Bali last month.

Bloomberg News also reported on Wednesday that, after senior NSC officials failed to persuade Pelosi against going ahead with the Taiwan visit, these officials reportedly tried to secure a communication channel with Beijing to try and prevent the situation from escalating.

Pelosi also repeatedly made clear that she had not crossed a red line since she had not made any kind of reference to Taiwanese “independence” and that Washington’s support for the “One China” policy remains unchanged.

Nicholas Burns, the US ambassador to China, is also sending similar messages. Burns reportedly said the US was ready to cooperate with China to avert rising tensions when he was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday evening.

Amidst all this diplomatic chaos, South Korea was left in a very uncomfortable position.

Although Pelosi had met directly with the top leaders of the countries she visited during her Asia tour, including Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan, she did not hold a one-on-one with President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea.

The apparent reason for this was that Yoon was “on vacation,” but the decision is interpreted as being more in line with the South Korean government’s fears of pushing China over the edge.

This marks an about-face in Yoon’s attitude compared to when he called for additional THAAD deployment back in January and when he labeled the previous Moon administration’s “three noes” policy as “submissive diplomacy” to China.

Although Pelosi’s visit has resulted in significant costs for Taiwan, the outcome of the visit was significant as it confirmed Washington’s “firm support” for Taipei.

Meanwhile, Japan, which is “all-in” regarding the bolstering of the US-Japan alliance, has consistently used the Taiwan issue as a pretext for beefing up its own military might.

The only one left at a loss and without anything positive to show is the conservative South Korean government, which had adopted a hawkish China policy from its inception.

By Choi Hyun-june, Beijing correspondent; Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent; Gil Yun-hyung staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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