Korea’s diplomatic challenges
Korean people have considered themselves the flag bearers in the grand march for peace on the Korean Peninsula, in East Asia and even the world. Perhaps, our geopolitical position of being surrounded by powerful nations determined that fate, or the pacifist gene is embedded in Korean DNA. Looking back at the rough path the Korean people have taken over the past hundred years, Koreans set forth the grand premise of peace in Asia and fair international order while the country suffered the ordeal of imperialistic violence. The grand principle of international peace proclaimed in the March 1st declaration of independence still sets the direction of Korea’s foreign policy.
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 1988 Seoul Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics proclaimed the significance of three Asian nations — Japan, Korea and China — making active contributions to the peace and prosperity of the world, as the Western-centric world order started to come to an end. In the 21st century, Korea, Japan and China launched a trilateral summit in 2008, as the three countries shared the awareness that they should work together for a new global order and create an economic, social and cultural community. The resumption of the tripartite meeting in Seoul this week has special meaning.
There are many signs that we are in a transitional period of international politics in terms of characteristics and power structures. In addition to aggravating a sectarian war in the Middle East, the contest of influence among Russia, the United States and NATO members in Syria and Ukraine are escalating the likelihood of war. Moreover, the chaos and confusion of a tide of refugees are pushing the entire European Union into an unpredictable ordeal. Meanwhile, in East Asia, territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and Asean members such as Vietnam and the Philippines, and differences in positions on international maritime law and freedom of navigation between China and America keep elevating the tension in the region to the extent that a possible military clash cannot be ruled out. In short, peace in Asia and the world is being threatened.
At this juncture, the three Asian leaders needed to bring wisdom to create a positive atmosphere towards a peaceful and productive relationship between the two powers. It is the calling of history for peace. The United States and China are superpowers in the realms of the military, economy, technology and culture, and they are the major secular nations with pragmatic cultures relatively free from religious or ideological extremism. The following two conditions need to be fulfilled for Washington and Beijing to develop stable cooperation.
First, American leaders need to embrace the fact that China has joined the ranks of superpowers. The United Kingdom, France, Germany and many others have already recognized that China is becoming a superpower only second to the United States.
Second, if China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy is aimed at expanding its influence to Europe through Central Asia on land and to the Middle East and Africa through the Indian Ocean, the United States’ pivot to Asia, or rebalancing policy, should be understood in a similar context. As the United States is a continental nation located between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, its potential strength from the geopolitical advantage is being realized in the 21st century. Until the mid-20th century, the United States was perceived as an Atlantic-based country geared towards Europe. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, the demographic, economic, technological and cultural center expanded from the East Coast to the West Coast on the Pacific Ocean. As Japan and then China emerged as the second-largest economy, the United States’ perception of itself as a Pacific nation grew, changing overseas policies and strategies as the Pacific era opened. The change was foreseen when Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states of the United States of America. The time has come for Asia, especially China, to recognize that the United States is a Pacific nation, too.
In order to achieve coexistence and cooperation, rather than collision, in Sino-U.S. relations, Korea, China and Japan’s smooth progression into a regional community is a prerequisite. Former Culture Minister and JoongAng Ilbo advisor Lee O-young’s “rock-paper-scissors civilization” idea points out that a driving force of tripartite relations can only be created by three members, not one or two, and that will make an Asia-Pacific community possible. To realize the dream, the anachronistic confrontation on the Korean Peninsula should be abandoned, and South and North Korea must first establish — and push ahead with — peace and reunification strategies to join the national community together.