[Column] Yoon Suk-yeol’s diplomacy of delusion

Posted on : 2023-11-24 16:33 KST Modified on : 2023-11-24 16:33 KST
Yoon has been busily country-hopping from month to month on state visits, but what has his diplomacy amounted to?
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea greets President Xi Jinping of China for a summit at a hotel in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea greets President Xi Jinping of China for a summit at a hotel in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 15, 2022. (Yonhap)
By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

After engaging in a spirited spell of China-bashing that lasted through this spring, the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol suddenly started showing some confidence this summer in its ability to manage relations with Beijing.

In September, national security advisor Cho Tae-yong raised expectations substantially when he personally predicted the “possibility of a South Korean visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.” Authorities boldly spoke of how things were going “very well” in terms of managing South Korea-China relations.

Those expectations evaporated at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, where Xi declined to hold a summit with Yoon.

What were the factors behind this misapprehension?

First of all, there are the Yoon administration’s illusions about China.

The foreign affairs and national security officials there seem to have anticipated that after Seoul’s relationships with Washington and Tokyo became a de facto quasi-alliance at their trilateral summit at Camp David last August, South Korea’s higher strategic stature would prompt China to reach out.

In an international order characterized by extreme instability, South Korea is obliged to step up its cooperation with the US and Japan. The question is how to leverage this in diplomatic terms. The US and Japan, for their part, have begun generating results by working closely through diplomatic channels with Beijing even as they have stepped up their leverage over it through their trilateral “quasi-alliance.”

South Korea has likewise come to the belated realization that it needs to follow their lead.

But that realization came at a time when there was much talk about a Chinese economic crisis and China having “peaked.” Officials in Seoul misconstrued the situation to mean that China’s collapse had begun, and that China was the one who would be missing out.

It is true that the Chinese economy has fallen on more difficult times. The factors suppressing it include the limits to its real estate-dependent growth model, the rigid party- and state-led economic policies under the leadership of Xi, and policies that are compulsively fixated on national security.

At the same time, China is also an enormous competitive force in advanced manufacturing, including electric vehicles. There are clear strengths side-by-side with its weaknesses.

Most crucially, the slowing of China’s growth does not mean the same thing as a “collapse.” If the rivalry with the US continues into the long term, and if the US’ isolationism intensifies, China’s influence in Asia could rise more rapidly than we expected.

The Yoon administration’s predictions of a China collapse echo the way conservative administrations in Seoul have doggedly repeated predictions of a North Korea “collapse” scenario, anticipating that the nuclear issue would fix itself as the North succumbed to its economic struggles. Rather than objectively analyzing a difficult issue and developing a strategy to firmly translate it into foreign affairs policy, they rest instead on complacent “expectations.”

Yoon’s illusions regarding the US are similarly out of touch with the times.

The US that exists in his mind is the one that used to dictate the global order in the past. He seems to be under the misconception that if South Korea just stands behind the US and sings “American Pie” loudly enough, the US will fix all its problems in terms of national security, foreign affairs and the economy.

With less than a year before the next US presidential election, the prospects for a Donald Trump comeback have grown substantially. Of course, it isn’t possible to predict the winner now — but the issue is not about Trump himself. The “America First” mentality and isolationism have already transformed into outspoken trends.

A large number of Americans are demanding that the US stop spending so much money and effort on maintaining the global order and intervening around the world. The Financial Times wrote that Joe Biden could end up the last US president attempting to uphold the alliance-based international order.

One key reason that the Yoon administration began emphasizing the improvement in relations with China recently has to do with its election illusions. Instead of strategically determining how far South Korea should go in cooperating with China and where it should remain vary in terms of economic matters and managing the North Korean nuclear threat, it seems to want to show how it is possible to side with the US and Japan and still receive better treatment from China — in contrast with predecessor Moon Jae-in’s administration, which it claims secured nothing to show for its capitulatory diplomatic approach toward Beijing.

China, for its part, is well aware of the Yoon administration’s calculations. Xi did have summits — with the US and Japan, and also with Mexico and Fiji — but made a point of refusing to have one with Yoon.

This was a warning message, a call for Yoon to shed his illusions. It also appears unlikely that any trilateral summit with China and Japan will happen before the South Korean general elections next April.

While departing for the UK on Nov. 20, Yoon said in an interview with a local news outlet that China, Russia, and North Korea have “different interests,” stressing that China’s role is important. His message read a call for Beijing to distance itself from military cooperation with Pyongyang and Moscow and to collaborate with Seoul.

That same day, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson delivered a message directed at Yoon, asserting, “We don’t need to be told what to do or not to do.”

As the situation on the Korean Peninsula grows ever more precarious, China shows no intention of cooperating with the Yoon administration.

One diplomatic expert explained, “The only way to achieve productive outcomes would be to establish principles when it comes to the US and China and engage in dialogue where we clearly establish how much diplomatic space we have with China.”

“You’re not going to generate results simply by saying, ‘Let’s have dialogue,’” they stressed.

With South Korea alone landing itself out in the cold while the US and Japan have both opened up channels with China, Beijing can be expected to continue applying pressure on Seoul, seeking payback for Yoon’s “overstepping” remarks about Taiwan ahead of his state visit to the US in April.

Yoon has been busy country-hopping from month to month on state visits, but what has his diplomacy amounted to? He’s been hard at work delivering speeches in English and enjoying all the pomp of state visit protocols — but protocols should not be confused with diplomacy.

He needs to be well prepared for the steep bill that’s on its way from Beijing.

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles