[Column] S. Korea's false dilemma

Posted on : 2021-04-06 17:20 KST Modified on : 2021-04-06 17:20 KST
We ought to question the assumption that South Korea's only options are to definitely stand with the US or walk a tightrope between the US and China
Suh Jae-jung
Suh Jae-jung

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

Is this a nerve-racking walk on a tightrope? Or is it a frustrating high-stakes drama in summit diplomacy? Have we forfeited the enthusiastic prospect of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula?

On Friday, Blue House National Security Director Suh Hoon had a face-to-face meeting with the US and Japan's top national security officials at the US Naval Academy, near Washington. Suh's counterparts in the meeting were Jake Sullivan, the US's National Security Advisor, and Shigeru Kitamura, secretary general of Japan's National Security Secretariat.

Then on Saturday, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong exchanged opinions with Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a meeting in Xiamen, in China's Fujian Province.

Suh's meeting in the US and Chung's meeting in China occurred on the same day, adjusting for time differences. Does this mean that diplomacy has finally begun to bloom after Joe Biden's inauguration as US president, or does it mean that South Korea is getting entangled in the US and China's hegemonic struggle?

Some analysts are worried about what's known as the Thucydides Trap, referring to Thucydides, the ancient historian who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which was fought in modern-day Greece. The rise of Athens threatened the dominance of Sparta, triggering a war over the transfer of power.

These analysts argue that this formula — substituting China and the US for Athens and Sparta — can help us predict developments in the 21st century. The implication is that South Korea must make a choice in the US and China's inevitable war for hegemony.

The answer to this "realistic" question is predetermined. If China were to challenge or provoke the US, South Korea's choice, as a military ally of the US, has already been made.

Furthermore, South Korea also has a "value alliance" with the US given shared values such as democracy, while there are fundamental limitations to its relationship with China, a one-party state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party.

According to this perspective, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is making a mistake when he maintains an equivocal position between the US and China, disregarding this reality. The result is the frustrating situation of Suh Hoon being "summoned" to the US and Chung Eui-yong being "summoned" to China.

That perspective faces considerable opposition, however. Siding with the US would be accompanied by frustrations of its own, other analysts say. While it's true that the US is South Korea's ally, they say, we mustn't ignore the fact that China is South Korea's biggest trading partner.

China's economic influence is overwhelming: South Korea's trade volume with China is greater than its trade with the US and Japan put together. In short, who's going to keep Koreans fed if they hide behind their ally? Another point that shouldn't be forgotten, they say, is that South Korea and China already have a "strategic cooperative partnership."

This "realistic" rebuttal — which calls for a holistic judgment based on national security and economic concerns — also comes with a preset answer. South Korea can't depend entirely on either the US military or trade with China. It needs to maintain stable relations with both countries as much as possible.

Besides, cooperation with both countries is essential, if only to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. That means that "tightrope diplomacy" is South Korea's destiny. A balanced foreign policy — on a tightrope that grows tauter as tensions build up between China and the US — ends up being a "love triangle" with South Korea being simultaneously courted by the US and China.

The recent meetings that the US and China have held with top diplomats and national security figures in the Moon administration can be seen as a splendid example of this kind of balanced foreign policy.

But despite their conflicting prescriptions, these two viewpoints are joined at the hip — they have different heads, but the same body. The worldview shared by these viewpoints is bisected into a US-led world order and a Sinocentric world order. This is a zero-sum worldview that assumes that these two world orders, which are based on conflicting values and norms, cannot coexist and that there can only be one hegemonic state dominating the world.

Under this viewpoint, unending rivalry is the only option available to the hegemon and the challenger, and other countries must either choose between the two or walk a precarious tightrope between them.

Alastair Iain Johnston, a Chinese foreign policy professor at Harvard University, says that such a binary worldview fails to account for the complexities of 21st-century international relations adequately. According to Johnston, today's world order is a complex one in which at least eight different orders coexist, and China and the US each have different relationships with those eight orders.

If Johnston is right, we ought to question the assumption that South Korea's only options are to definitely stand with the US or walk a tightrope between the US and China.

Under that assumption, our only choices are between fear and frustration. The way forward for the Korean Peninsula is to reject this false dilemma.

Our choice can be a world order centered on peace between nations, between citizens, and between the state and its citizens. When we make that our choice, we can undertake a foreign policy of enthusiasm on the Korean Peninsula.

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

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