South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds a joint press conference with US President Joe Biden on Friday at the White House after their first in-person summit. (Yonhap News)
A Joint Statement issued by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden following their summit Friday included references to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, which arguably represent the geopolitical front lines of the US-China rivalry.
The references had also been included in a summit issued after a US-Japan summit last month. But while the South Korea-US statement saw the two sides agreeing on reining in China, it noticeably refrained from any direct attacks on Beijing.
The latest statement echoed the one from the US and Japan with its inclusion of a sentence about the two leaders “emphasiz[ing] the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
This was the first time the Taiwan Strait had ever been mentioned in a joint statement by the South Korean and US leaders. The reference in the US-Japan statement was the first in 52 years since 1969.
But in their other references to China, the South Korea-US and US-Japan joint statements were very different. The US-Japan statement included more aggressive language, with Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stating that they “oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea.” As a country, China was mentioned four times.
In contrast, the South Korea-US statement referred more mutedly to the two leaders “pledg[ing] to maintain [. . .] respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond. The word “China” only appeared once, in the name “South China Sea.”
A comparison of the two statements suggests that South Korea agreed to US demands in lending its support to a hardline stance against China but also compromised in such a way that it would not come across as overtly attacking Beijing.
When asked in a joint press conference after the summit whether there had been pressure from the US to take a tougher stance on China over the Taiwan issue, Moon replied, “Fortunately, there wasn’t such pressure.”
“But, as for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, we agreed how important that region is,” he added.
A foreign affairs source in Washington said Washington “understands how sensitive the South Korea-China relationship is.”
Also sidestepped at the summit was whether South Korea would formally join the Quad, a framework of four countries — the US, Japan, India and Australia — aimed at reining in China.
In their joint statement, the two leaders avoided the question, stating that they “acknowledge the importance of open, transparent, and inclusive regional multilateralism including the Quad.”
The response from China has taken two main forms. Some have expressed deep dismay and criticism over the fact that what it regards as “sovereign areas” was even mentioned, while others were more understanding of South Korea’s position in comparison with the previous US-Japan summit.
The Chinese edition of the Global Times, which tends to be more nationalistic than the English edition, focused on the joint statement announced by the US and Japanese leaders at the time of their summit. In a position statement issued immediately afterward, the Chinese Foreign Ministry delivered a blistering rebuke of the US-Japan joint statement, which it said “interfered in Chinese internal affairs and severely violated the basic rules of international relations.”
In contrast, the English edition of the Global Times said that Moon “got what he wanted while making sure the line wasn’t crossed.”
“The US and South Korea reached the best possible agreement they could when it comes to China issues,” it concluded.
Japanese media also focused on the South Korean and US leaders’ reference to the Taiwan Strait. Most of them concluded that in contrast with the US-Japan summit, the two sides had reached a compromise by avoiding any direct mention or criticism of China.
The Asahi Shimbun newspaper said the South Korean and US leaders “did not go deeply into China policy.”
The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper singled out Moon’s mention of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” as a remark that was “unusual in how deep it went.”
By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent
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