[Column] Yoon’s talk of freedom, solidarity and Japan's ability to preemptively strike Korean Peninsula

Posted on : 2022-12-20 17:09 KST Modified on : 2022-12-20 17:09 KST
Is the Yoon Suk-yeol administration resolved to be at the table and not on the menu?
Korean, American and Japanese ships take part in a joint naval defense exercise in international waters to the east of Korea in October 2022. (courtesy of the US Defense Department)
Korean, American and Japanese ships take part in a joint naval defense exercise in international waters to the east of Korea in October 2022. (courtesy of the US Defense Department)
By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Since the rise of China and the war in Ukraine, the United States has defined the international order as one of “democracy versus totalitarianism.” But are international politics following this bifurcated order?

Let’s look at Saudi Arabia, which used to be an ideal official ally for the United States.

Saudi Arabia invited Russia — the successor of its former archenemy the Soviet Union, with which it didn’t even have diplomatic ties during the Cold War — to OPEC+ and cooperates with it to decide international oil prices. Riyadh hasn’t taken part in sanctions against Russia for the war in Ukraine. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia and attended a summit of Gulf states on Dec. 7 to 9 (local time), Saudi Arabia appeared to engage in equidistant diplomacy between the United States, China and Russia.

NATO ally Turkey has also been mediating for Russia during the war in Ukraine. Even Israel has not taken part in sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. The same goes for other traditionally pro-Western states like Mexico and Brazil.

In the Middle East, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are either dialogue partners of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), led by China and Russia, or are considering participation. If the SCO corresponds to NATO in the West, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) correspond to the Group of Seven. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey have expressed their desire to join BRICS and are in talks to do so.

Recently, the foreign policy of middle power states has differed from the line taken by the Non-Aligned Movement formed during the Bandung Conference of 1955. If the line of the China and India-led Non-Aligned Movement was “neither the United States nor the Soviet Union,” middle powers pursue a policy of “multiple solidarities.” They have a foot in all camps: the United States, China and Russia.

Within the United States, there is some self-reproach for the decision of middle powers to seek multiple alliances. Trump administration national security advisor H.R. McMaster called the US presumption of automatic solidarity with existing allies “strategic narcissism.”

This narcissism reared its head in October, when Saudi Arabia rejected a US request to increase oil production, cutting production by 2 million barrels. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre slammed the decision, saying it was “clear that OPEC+ is aligning with Russia” with the announcement The United States had overlooked that Saudi Arabia traditionally resisted US influence in deciding oil prices.

Strategic narcissism was also on display in 2015, when many US allies like the UK, Germany, Australia and South Korea took part in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), ignoring pressure from the Obama administration to reject participation.

Washington, too, is turning toward an approach tailored to middle powers that seek multiple forms of solidarity. No longer confining itself to traditional collective security bodies or bilateral alliances, it now pushes entities such as the "Quad" linking the United States, Japan, India and Australia, the "Abraham Accords" that established ties between Israel and the Arab world, and the “I2U2” group between India, Israel, the UAE and the United States.

In its first joint statement, on July 14, the I2U2 group talked of strengthening economic cooperation among the parties, but the United States wants it to become a “West Asian Quad.” With the Abraham Accords, Washington is pursuing unity between Israel and Sunni Arab states, and through the I2U2, it is trying to develop an alliance between India and the Abraham Accords nations. The strategy is to overlap and link this India-Abraham Accords alliance with the Quad, the centerpiece in the bigger picture of Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China.

The war in Ukraine does have an aspect of confrontation between democracy and totalitarianism, but it’s also a test case for the weakening of the existing order of hegemonic states and great powers. It demonstrates two trends: Nations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as well as other middle powers, are trying to avoid getting stuck in Washington’s magnetic field, while the United States is pursuing a strategy of unity tailored to these nations.

Financial Times columnist Ivan Krastev called South Africa, India, South Korea, Germany, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel "a cast of odd bedfellows." He wrote that "they all share one fundamental feature: they are determined to be at the table and not on the menu."

Is the Yoon Suk-yeol administration resolved to be at the table and not on the menu?

The administration is elucidating its foreign policy by repeatedly using American terminology of freedom and solidarity. Korea cannot express the same foreign policy as nations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, which find themselves in different geopolitical environments. However, other middle powers are responding to the revived geopolitical confrontation between the great powers as an opportunity, but isn’t Korea accepting it only as a “risk” that requires Seoul to stand even more closely in line with a particular great power?

Japan has officially stated that it’s for Tokyo to decide whether to apply its “counterattack capability” to “attack enemy bases” — essentially preemptive strikes — to the Korean Peninsula. How are we supposed to accept this reality in which Japan designates the Korean Peninsula — constitutionally, our sovereign territory — as a target for preemptive strikes? This is especially so for the Yoon administration, which talks more about freedom and solidarity than any government.

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

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