Beyond the sandwich
An unexpected controversy involving Korea being sandwiched between China and the United States has intensified recently. It began with concerns the government mistimed both joining the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and deploying the U.S.-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. Although President Park Geun-hye said Korea does not conduct diplomacy to please other countries and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se stressed that Seoul’s decisions were made independently to serve the nation’s interests, the public doesn’t appear to have responded warmly.
There are two main views toward the government’s behavior. First is the idea of jumping on the China bandwagon. The shift of power from the United States to China is a fact, they argue, and it is desirable for Korea to cooperate with the “rising” China, rather than the “declining” United States. Because China is the country that can have a great impact on not only our economy but also on North Korea, we must not be obsessed with the Korea-U.S. alliance, a thing of the past, and need to intensify the strategic cooperative partnership with China for the future, they said. From that perspective, the government’s decision to join the AIIB, despite Washington’s pressure otherwise, while making no clear conclusion on the Thaad issue was very satisfying.
There is also strong opposition. Scholars say the shift of power has a long way to go, and the United States will lead the global order once again. As the United States did in formulating the new global order after World War II and in the post-Cold War era in the early 1990s, they argue the new world order of the 21st century, despite its hardships over the past years, will ultimately be created by the United States.
They pay special attention to the recent reality of the economic recovery of the United States from the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the rise of the United States as an energy power with the shale gas revolution. Furthermore, the United States enjoys an overwhelming edge in advanced technologies and is free from the issues of a low-birth rate and an aging society, a trap for almost all advanced countries. The defense industry has a strong foundation, although it suffered a setback from recent budget cuts, and defense spending will eventually grow again based on the economic recovery and subsequent increase of revenue, they say.
The myth of China’s 8 percent growth, however, already was broken, while its economy is now described by the phrase “new normal” to explain the nation’s low growth and high unemployment, they say. China actually faces a wide range of challenges at home, including perennial problems associated with the wealth gap, environmental issues, corruption, separatist movements and the desire for a rule of law and democracy.
Although the Chinese government has increased its defense budget by double-digit percentages every year, it is still only a quarter that of the United States, they point out. The number of China’s allies also is far smaller than that of the United States. They therefore warn Korea must not make a hasty, wrong choice by siding with China.
While it is realistically difficult for Korea to engage in a double-play of siding with the United States for national security and China for economic reasons, what choice do we have?
“Is the American Century Over?” - a recent publication by Harvard University Prof. Joseph Nye - contains an important clue. Nye said the “American century” has continued since 1941. No country ? not China, Japan, India or those in Europe ? can surpass the United States for incoming decades, he said.
It is not, however, U.S. hegemony, he argued. Although the United States has played a key role in creating the global power balance and producing public good in the international community, it has never enjoyed the status of “Pax Americana” to decide the global order, he said. Even when the United States represented 50 percent of the world economy in the 1950s, it enjoyed only partial supremacy, he said.
Nye said the United States sees a basic limit in exercising its influence in the 21st century, because other countries like China have grown stronger and the mechanism of the international community has become more complex. The domestic politics of the United States also seriously undermined the ability of power conversion, he showed. Taking into account the limits at home and abroad, the United States cannot unilaterally decide key international issues; it must work with other countries, he concluded.
The lesson from Nye’s book is clear. It is too early to talk about siding with China, but there is also a limit to what the United States can do.
We, therefore, need to find our own path. We must pursue our relations with the United States and China with fortitude in harmony with the national interest and take the initiative to find creative solutions to problems by working with them.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, April 6, Page 31
*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in