Time for middle powers to step up amid “long-term war of attrition” of US-China rivalry, says expert

Posted on : 2022-10-27 15:44 KST Modified on : 2022-10-27 15:44 KST
The 2022 Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium kicked off with a session titled “The US-China power struggle, NATO's expansion, and the future”
Stein Tønnesson, a research professor emeritus at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, delivers a keynote presentation during a panel at the Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium on Oct. 26. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)
Stein Tønnesson, a research professor emeritus at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, delivers a keynote presentation during a panel at the Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium on Oct. 26. (Kim Jung-hyo/The Hankyoreh)

Scholars shared their expert opinions on the current state of global politics at this year’s Hankyoreh-Busan International Symposium.

On Wednesday, Stein Tønnesson, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and a presenter at the symposium, argued that the aggravation of the conflict between the US and China is “threatening all countries” regardless of whether they’re neutral, partners, or even allies.

The scholar argued that small and medium-sized powers and regional organizations should make it their top priority to consider what efforts can be made to change the conflict between the US and China.

Tønnesson has long been studying peace in East Asia, including the establishment of Southeast Asian countries, conflicts in the South China Sea, revolutions and wars in Vietnam, and the civil war in Myanmar.

The first session of the symposium was titled “The US-China power struggle, NATO's expansion, and the future.”

Participants in the debate argued that, in order to ease both the US-China strategic competition and their geopolitical confrontations, middle powers such as South Korea need to take action.

Specifically, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam in Southeast Asia and South Korea and Japan in Northeast Asia must convince the US to adhere to past promises, such as the “One China” principle, and urge Washington to maintain the status quo until changes come about through peaceful means.

Regarding South Korea’s role as a mediator in the US-China conflict, Tønnesson cited South Korea’s continued trade and cooperation with China as important. The Norwegian professor also said it was not desirable to adopt a strategy that aims to isolate China from the global supply chain through decoupling efforts.

Similarly, Kim Joon-hyung, a professor at Handong Global University, pointed out how other countries in Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia, are basing their actions on practicality and beneficial interests.

“It is important to recognize the US-China hegemonic conflict as a long-term war of attrition and South Korea’s strategy of choosing one camp is dangerous,” Kim said. Instead, he emphasized that “the best strategy is to adopt flexible pragmatic diplomacy and to reduce dependence on both sides in the long run.”

Regarding what can be done about the situation, Tønnesson cited the response to the global climate crisis as the most important task for easing the US-China conflict.

"It's about joining efforts to solve the climate crisis, keeping a check on those who want to hinder this, and providing technical solutions that can be commercially implemented for global green growth,” Tønnesson said.

He argued that such efforts will require an innovative combination that will allow for cooperation and productive competition between China and the US, especially between companies and countries.

In the same vein, John Ikenberry, a professor at Princeton University in the US, argued that China and the US should cooperate on global issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation.

Under the Biden administration, Ikenberry argued, the US will try to take the lead among countries aiming for global decarbonization, or at least carbon neutrality.

As long as the two superpowers make greater efforts in this direction, their rivalry could redound to global favor, he argued.

Meanwhile, discussants also emphasized the need to avoid hasty conclusions that the current global situation has turned into a new Cold War.

“The collapse of the post-Cold War system that lasted for 30 years is clear, but it is difficult and undesirable to conclude a new Cold War as a fait accompli,” Kim said.

As to the reasoning behind his argument, Kim said that, unlike during the Cold War period, which saw clear divisions between two camps, nowadays the world is far too connected and if these connections would be forcibly separated, things would not turn out as desired but many problems would result instead.

In particular, Kim stressed the importance of refraining from domestically adopting a dividing framework of pro-China or pro-US and using this kind of rhetoric for domestic politics.

Similarly, Ikenberry does not agree with the “new Cold War” narrative.

Ikenberry believes that the US will start a sustained effort in its strategic competition with China and use all of its assets, but that this does not have to become a new Cold War. He believes that US allies won’t lend their support to such a war.

Instead, Ikenberry predicts that the Biden administration will try and establish a framework for cooperation across East Asia and the democratic world with the aim of long-term competition with China.

Moon Chung-in, chairman of the Hankyoreh Foundation for Reunification and Culture and who moderated the panel, called on South Korea to play a more active role amidst the ongoing US-China competition.

“If the US-China strategic competition is to be eased and their geopolitical confrontation is to be alleviated, a middle power country like South Korea must step up,” Moon argued.

"The US is trying to break the liberal order that it created and it is important to foster a discussion on how to handle this," Moon continued.

Participants of the session also expressed various opinions regarding the Taiwan Strait.

Through his keynote presentation, Tønnesson pointed out that there are several potential risk areas where a direct conflict between the US and China is possible, but the most serious risk area among these is the Taiwan Strait.

Tønnesson argued that it would be in China's best national interest to allow Taiwan to be a full member of the United Nations and an independent state.

On the other hand, Shi Yinhong, a professor at the Renmin University of China, mentioned the importance of striking a balance without causing conflict in the Taiwan Strait and insisted that the current situation is not as volatile or explosive as the Taiwan Strait fears.

“China is trying to restore stability in the Taiwan Strait and, in the end, this will not turn into a major conflict,” Shi said, adding that “stabilization in the Taiwan Strait is possible.”

At the end of the session, Moon Chung-in said that “the rise of the new Cold War must be prevented,” adding that “the path we must follow is not security through strength but security through a discourse of peace.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

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