[Viewpoint] A bad strategic choice

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[Viewpoint] A bad strategic choice

The Lee Myung-bak administration, which together with North Korea sent inter-Korean relations back to the strained and hostile state of the Cold War period, may now wreck ties with China. The joint statement by South Korea and the United States after both countries’ foreign and defense ministers’ meeting in Washington on June 14 appears to be Seoul’s declaration of full support for Washington’s security strategy in the Asia-Pacific which is aimed at holding China in check.

South Korean and U.S. ministers reaffirmed the need for enhanced security cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, which could send a strong message to China that they are joining forces to contain Beijing’s rising influence in the region. They also underscored the need to establish a code of conduct for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China to “help advance peace, stability and security in the South China Sea.” But Beijing thinks there is no need for such a code of conduct as it has territorial sovereignty over islets in the waters.

The reference in the joint statement gives a strong impression that South Korea sides with the U.S. in backing countries - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan - that are engaged in sensitive territorial disputes with China.

The foreign and defense ministers of the two countries also recognized the importance of India’s “Look East” strategy and pledged to seek ways to increase dialogue, cooperation and engagement with India. The “Look East” policy - initiated in the early 1990s by the government of Narasimha Rao - is a diplomatic initiative aimed at developing economic ties with ASEAN countries as part of his economic reform policies.

As the global focus shifts to the Asian continent with China emerging as a dominant power, however, Beijing suspects India’s befriending of Japan and ASEAN members as part of a strategy to “encircle” China and dilute its newfound clout in the region’s political, security and military order. India is generally considered the most formidable rival to China considering the immensity of its population and land.

From Beijing’s viewpoint, India’s strengthening of ties with Japan and other neighbors in the region and the U.S. government’s strategic shift of attention to the Pacific can come across as a threat to China’s pivotal interests as well as a serious stumbling block to achieving its tactical goals in the region. South Korea made it evident where it stands by inking the statement that clearly supports the United States’ Asia-Pacific strategy.

In a symbolic stop at Cam Ranh Bay - a strategic deep water port that was a U.S. naval base during the Vietnam War - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on June 3 sent an unequivocal message to China with the South China Sea as backdrop that the U.S. plans to defend its traditional presence in the region. “Access for U.S. naval ships to this facility is a key component of our relationship [with Vietnam],” he said. The U.S. depends on the enhanced alliance with South Korea, Japan and Australia as its pivotal allies, while pursuing a strategic partnership with India along with Singapore and Indonesia. The Philippines and Vietnam also play strategic roles in the new U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

It is unwise for South Korea to appear hostile toward China on the foreign and security front this year, which marks the 20th anniversary of the two countries normalizing diplomatic ties in 1992. Without rubbing it in with the new Korea-U.S. security joint statement, Beijing is already sensitive about Seoul’s buildup of its military posture since Kim Jong-un became a supreme leader of North Korea after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il.

The two-plus-two meeting in Washington also agreed to strengthen a comprehensive joint defense capability to counter North Korea’s ever-growing missile threat. The plan will include redeployment of Apache attack helicopters on frontline islands around the western coast, support for South Korea’s air and missile defense system, and extension of the range of our ballistic missiles beyond the 300-kilometer (186-mile) limit to strike any location in North Korea.

The U.S. has been inviting South Korea to join the missile defense system it is developing with Japan. But South Korea has so far resisted the idea in fear of upsetting Beijing. Seoul would probably like to mitigate Beijing’s apprehension by arguing that its missile defense system - dubbed “KAMD” - differs from that of the U.S. as it will be employing “low-tier” ballistic missiles instead of high-altitude, long-range missiles. But Beijing could, nevertheless, protest the plan if it wants to.

We need a stronger defense system to counter a belligerent North Korea armed with nuclear and long-range missiles. But our defense target should be strictly focused on countering North Korean provocations. However, our government invites unnecessary suspicion by heedlessly joining the U.S. strategic campaign to maintain pre-eminence while containing China’s influence in the region.

Rejoining the hegemonistic struggle of the Cold War era between the Seoul-Washington-Tokyo axis and the Pyongyang-Beijing-Moscow axis is the worst kind of strategic choice the government can make. I just hope the poor choice the Lee Myung-bak administration has taken on the security front won’t go against the tide of history.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie

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