[Column] Is the Moon administration really pro-China?

Posted on : 2020-08-26 18:37 KST Modified on : 2020-08-26 18:37 KST
Policies seem to point in the opposite direction of being too pro-US
Yang Jiechi, a Chinese Community Party Politburo member, and Blue House National Security Office Director take a commemorative photograph at the Westin Chosun Busan hotel on Aug. 22. (Yonhap News)
Yang Jiechi, a Chinese Community Party Politburo member, and Blue House National Security Office Director take a commemorative photograph at the Westin Chosun Busan hotel on Aug. 22. (Yonhap News)

“Don’t you think the administration is too ‘pro-China’?”

I often hear questions like this. A simple internet search shows countless posts denouncing the current “pro-China administration.” The combination of persistent attacks by conservative and far-right figures accusing the Moon Jae-in administration of being “pro-China” and a more general spread of anti-Chinese sentiment has given rise to some serious misunderstandings.

The main basis that conservatives and far-right figures offer in denouncing the Moon administration’s foreign affairs and national security policies as “pro-China” is the claim that COVID-19 spread within South Korea because it failed to impose a full-scale ban on arrivals from China in the early stages of the outbreak. This broadside is an example of fake news: from a global perspective, more countries failed than succeeded in controlling the disease simply through bans on Chinese arrivals. They also take issue with remarks Moon made in a speech at Peking University during a 2017 visit, where he described China being like a “high mountaintop” and said South Korea “will share in the Chinese dream.” As diplomatic rhetoric goes, it may have been excessive -- but it should also be taken into account that far more excessive rhetoric is used vis-à-vis the US.

If anything, the Moon administration’s foreign policies could be rated as leaning too “pro-US.” Much of its diplomatic capacities have been focused on persuading the Donald Trump administration to achieve progress in its negotiations with North Korea. The Blue House drew strenuous objections from Beijing in 2018 when it announced plans to pursue a three-party statement ending the Korean War -- including South and North Korea and the US, while leaving China out. Since Trump’s own political interests led him to refuse to reach an agreement at the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi on Feb. 28, 2019, Seoul has had to call off its “all in on Trump” policies and come out with its own solutions to the nuclear issue, but it has continued to focus on persuading Washington.

Lack of China strategists in administration

At a time like now when the ripple effects of the new Cold War between the US and China have become a key concern in South Korean diplomacy, Seoul needs to reflect on its lack of cool-headed understanding and strategy toward China. There haven’t been any diplomatic efforts with China to properly resolve the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system conflict ever since it was papered over with the so-called “Three Nos” statement. Even many experts who have advised the Moon administration have commented that the lack of strategists within the Blue House in charge of China strategy is a serious issue. Experts have remarked on the lack of a control tower in the Blue House to spearhead China strategy; on the Blue House’s lack of concern over preparations for the new US-China Cold War even as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has drafted policy reports for them; and the dominance of the Blue House security office by US supporters and MOFA by its North American bureau, without anyone attending to China policy.

Last weekend, Yang Jiechi, a Chinese Community Party Politburo member who oversees China’s diplomatic policies, visited South Korea via Singapore, meeting for six hours in Busan with National Security Office Director Suh Hoon. Yang explained Beijing’s position on international issues such as the US-China conflict, while affirming that South Korea was “a country that President Xi Jinping will make a priority of visiting.”

Why would Yang come to South Korea now? As the conflict between the US and China has intensified, there has recently been a debate in China between hardliners and moderates over how to respond to the US’ onslaught, but things have more or less been settled in a direction of managing the situation from a cool-headed perspective. The strategy is to go about calmly enlisting allies to win the “global war” without falling into the Trump administration’s trap and feeding global antipathy toward China. Yang’s visits to South Korea and Singapore marked the first step taken by China since emerging from this heated internal debate and fine-tuning its strategy. This week, State Councilor and Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to visit Germany and four other European countries.

China’s focus on S. Korea, Singapore, Germany in diplomatic counteroffensive against US

South Korea in Northeast Asia, Singapore in Southeast Asia, and Germany in Europe -- these are the places that Chinese have focused on to coordinate interests among the major countries with close ties to the US. Among European countries, Germany has achieved the most economic benefits via China relations; it has also been Europe’s most vocal opponent to the Trump administration. From former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew to his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore has been the country that has understood China most deeply, famously showing its proficiency at diplomatic efforts to mediate between the US and China.

What issues should we seek to resolve through a South Korea visit by Xi Jinping? We can no longer simply limit it to an objective such as getting “anti-Korea measures” lifted. We need to comprehensively consider how to overcome pressure from the US to take part in an Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) that shuts out China and to not supply semiconductors to Huawei -- one of China’s key future industries -- and what sort of relationship we want to have with Beijing.

We also need to reach a clearer decision on how to cooperate with China in terms of a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue and the Korean Peninsula peace process. We need clear principles on the matter of the Hong Kong national security law. I’m curious to see how deeply the administration has been considering and developing a strategy for advancing peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula by making use of the “friendly signals” China has begun sending -- without falling prey to pressure from Washington and Beijing to pick sides.

By Park Min-hee, editorial writer

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

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