Dancing on a diplomatic tightrope

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Dancing on a diplomatic tightrope

The United States, which until recently has been limiting its involvement in the territorial dispute between China and Japan amid simmering nationalist rivalries as it calls for “cooler heads,” finally joined the fray by adding its military presence in waters not far away from the disputed Diaoyu Islands - known as Senkaku in Japan.

Time Magazine reported that two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and a Marine Corps air-ground task force armed with warplanes, missile cruisers, destroyers, amphibious assault vehicles and helicopters began conducting operations in the western Pacific within easy reach of Diaoyu amid looming signs of a military confrontation between China and Japan. Moreover, some 2,200 marines have been stationed at sea aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard and two escort vessels in the nearby Philippine Sea.

U.S. naval officials maintain that the operations are unrelated to the ongoing territorial dispute and should be seen more as a part of a “rebalancing” of U.S. forces in the region as a hedge against China’s military power and ambitions in the region. But the U.S. has made it clear that it could come to Japan’s aid under the terms of the U.S.-Japan security treaty should the island come under attack. It has made a similar defense warning on behalf of the Philippines, which is embroiled in a dispute with China over islands in South China Sea. There is little chance of the two powers running into a cold war-like military confrontation, but small-scale skirmishes could be unavoidable if tensions do not cool down.

The demonstration of military muscle between the U.S. and China brings forth chilling memories for Koreans, who have experienced something of a proxy war between the two superpowers. The two Koreas are tightly chained to their traditional allies and still technically at war. South Korea is placed in a tight spot with economic, trade and various social ties and interests with both the U.S. and China. Politicians and government officials often wrangle over which country they are closer to.

But drawing a clear distinction between being pro-U.S. or pro-China is meaningless and inappropriate. Such ideological yardsticks do not help our national strategy, which needs to be directed by a more farsighted vision and agenda. We cannot risk worsening ties with China, a rapidly rising economic power, as well as with the U.S., which has been our key ally throughout times of war and hardship. It would be better to alleviate the tensions and prevent any ill influences spilling over to the Korean Peninsula. We should take moves to improve relations with North Korea to avoid getting trapped in larger conflicts.

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