Caught in the middle

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Caught in the middle

An alarming rebalancing of existing alliances is unfolding in East Asia. The deepening diplomatic and military honeymoon between the United States and Japan presents serious challenges to South Korea as a result of the U.S. government’s effort to counter China’s rising clout in the region by reinforcing Japan’s military power. Closer Washington-Tokyo ties will undoubtedly put South Korea in a predicament unseen before. Just like a series of past warnings that the Korean economy will lose its leverage when sandwiched between Japan and China, the world news media is now applying that dynamic to our diplomacy.

The remarkable change in alliances basically stems from an emerging Cold War-type rivalry between America and China, with the former trying to keep the latter in check, especially its swift rise in military and diplomatic realms thanks to its dazzling economic growth. Despite experts’ predictions that the Sino-U.S. competition will not escalate into anything like the past between the Soviet Union and America, no one can be sure if such wishful thinking will still be valid one or two decades from now. The precariousness is exacerbated by Japan’s apparent policy to fuel the Sino-U.S. rivalry through its unceasing claim over the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, Islands.

This pushes South Korea into an unfathomable diplomatic and security dilemma. One example is Washington’s call for us to join in its missile defense program, partly aimed at curbing North Korea’s increasing nuclear threats in Northeast Asia. But China deciphers the U.S. move as a scheme to nullify the capabilities of its long-range missiles. That’s why Beijing pressured Seoul to veer away from the missile defense system, citing Korea’s status as China’s No. 1 trading partner, which has led to a hot debate over what to prioritize: security or economic interests.

But it’s not easy to find an answer to the conundrum. President Park Geun-hye made remarkable diplomatic achievements by rebuilding our relations with China - which had hit rock bottom during the Lee Myung-bak administration - through her signature “trust diplomacy.” On the domestic front, she was also able to reopen the suspended Kaesong Industrial Complex. But pundits cast strong suspicion on the future of those accomplishments, not to mention deteriorating Seoul-Tokyo relations.

We need great strategists like Henry Kissinger or Hans-Dietrich Genscher, both far-sighted and insightful politicians. The diplomatic crisis we face today demands creative - and decisive - vision from our political leaders.

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