[News analysis] Navigating a new world order

Posted on : 2020-06-03 17:42 KST Modified on : 2020-06-03 17:42 KST
Reliant on both the US and China, how should S. Korea proceed diplomatically?
US President Donald Trump on a flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to Washington, DC, on May 30. (Reuters/Yonhap News)
US President Donald Trump on a flight from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to Washington, DC, on May 30. (Reuters/Yonhap News)

As the conflict between the US and China escalates in all areas, exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has agreed to accept an invitation from US President Donald Trump to attend the G7 summit. As a member of the G20, South Korea may well regard G7 participation as a good opportunity to raise its international profile. But with Seoul stuck between the two superpowers as they struggle for hegemony, the government is facing calls to carefully craft its foreign policy. Experts underline the need for a two-track diplomatic strategy that outlines principles while simultaneously diversifying risk.

As the chair of the G7, the US has not only extended a temporary invitation to South Korea, Russia, India, and Australia but is also drawing up plans for a larger permanent body that would include 11 or 12 countries. Trump’s aggressive stance is widely thought to be aimed at creating a coalition against China. In addition to trying to blame China for the spread of the coronavirus, the US has started sending anti-Chinese messages to its allies, including South Korea. The US has also made it clear that the issue of China will be on the agenda of the G7 meeting.

China responded to the US’ maneuvers with a sharp warning. During the daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 2, Spokesperson Zhao Lijian expressed irritation when asked about the US’ invitation of South Korea and three other countries to the G7 meeting. “Rounding up a gang to fight China is no way to win people’s hearts. Such behavior isn’t in the interests of the relevant countries,” Zhao said.

The Blue House explained that Moon’s attendance at the G7 summit was related to international cooperation on fighting COVID-19 and was unrelated to a coalition against China. But given the list of invitees, South Korea can be seen as standing in for middle powers forced to strike a balance between the US and China.

“The US could find a way to pressure South Korea to choose [between the US and China], and that could have an impact on middle powers who are in a similar position. The G7 summit could be a major inflection point in US-China relations,” said Kim Han-kwon, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

The dispute between the US and China has recently grown much more complicated, expanding from trade and financial issues and the rivalry over global economic leadership to the issues of security, human rights, and ideology. Tensions between the two countries eased for a moment when they reached their phase-one trade deal early this year, but their relations took a nosedive over responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s enactment of a security law affecting Hong Kong.

One reason Trump has been so belligerent against China recently is his search for a scapegoat for the COVID-19 crisis in the US, as he seeks reelection in November. But experts say that his actions also reflect a broader anxiety in American society about the rise of China. Many believe that deep-seated anti-Chinese sentiment among Americans could turn the two countries’ conflict into a long-lasting structural issue. That would inevitably deepen concerns for Seoul, given its dependence on both the US and China for its economy, security, and the potential for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

If South Korea is to avoid being tossed by this tempest, experts say, the government needs to set up definite principles for its foreign policy. “Even while sharply criticizing each other, the US and China are citing international principles, norms, and institutions as evidence. For that reason, it won’t be easy for the US or China to attack South Korea as long as it acts in line with principles that are grounded in the liberal international order,” said Park Won-gon, professor of international area studies at Handong Global University.

“The government needs to have public consent for any principles it adopts. During the THAAD [deployment], there was a major internal conflict that led to even greater pressure from overseas,” said Kim Han-kwon, referring to an American missile defense system that was deployed in South Korea, provoking sharp opposition from China.

Looking to Singapore as a potential model

In that sense, one model worth considering is that of Singapore, which has pursued a foreign policy of principled pragmatism between the US and China. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien-loong elaborated the city-state’s approach during a speech at the Asia Security Summit, also called the Shangri-La Dialogue, in June 2019, with top defense officials from the US and China in attendance.

Lee noted that countries such as the US “have to accept that China will continue to grow and strengthen” and cautioned against trying to set up an anti-Chinese front. In the same speech, Lee said that China needs to convince other countries that it is a responsible member of the international community and to settle conflicts “through diplomacy and compromise rather than force or the threat of force,” in a reference to human rights and democracy issues.

Other experts say that South Korea should diversify risk by turning to multilateral diplomacy, including joint action with other countries. “There are many countries with similar concerns as ours in regard to the US and China. We need to create a coalition for joint action before these issues erupt,” said Kim Jun-hyeong, director of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy.

By Kim So-youn and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters, and Jung In-hwan, Beijing correspondent

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

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