Korean diplomacy testedAs China’s dramatic rise particularly after the Xi Jinping government is challenged in many ways, Korea’s diplomacy is also tested.
As China’s territorial claim over the South China Sea was ruled groundless at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, its diplomacy based on power seems to lose steam. China’s strong objection to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) deployment to South Korea citing the infringement of China’s strategic interest was also not accepted.
In the course of planning the Thaad deployment, South Korea has revealed many flaws as a middle power. Above all, Seoul lost the balance after failing to prevent Korea-China relations from becoming a dependent variable of the U.S.-China relations. Also, the lack of comprehensive leadership to encompass sensitive issues led to poor coordination of foreign and security policies. The government could not eliminate uncertainties from domestic conflicts of interest, not to mention controlling discords through communication. Especially, the government lacked diplomatic sense and wisdom, choosing the worst timing to announce the Thaad deployment as China received unfavorable ruling on the South China Sea territorial dispute, one of China’s core interests.
The Korea-China relations appeared to be in honeymoon period, but it is quite unstable and rapidly cooling due to sharp conflict of interests. The friendly relations climaxed when President Park Geun-hye stood on the Tiananmen Gate by Xi Jinping to watch the Victory Day parade and the Korea-China FTA was signed. Around this time, Korea was the fifth largest contributor to the AIIB and became the vice chair. China joined UN sanctions on North Korea. But lately, China-led AIIB has transferred the vice chairmanship to France due to Hong Ky-tack’s personal issues, and the institution is turning unfriendly toward Korea. China protests Korea’s Thaad decision with diplomatic gestures. Korea’s strategic partnership with China has not matured yet, and China’s diplomatic status is also not so sophisticated and dignified.
As Seoul-Beijing relations haven’t found a balance of interests and values, it is rapidly changing in accordance with the Washington-Beijing relations. Under such circumstances, making a diplomatic deal of giving something to China to get something would lead to a futile outcome, which again could lead to mutual distrust.
Now, if Korean diplomacy seeks to become friends with everyone without principles and goes between America and China, we may lose balance, fall into the sea of conflicts, and invite their interventions. As a developed middle power, Korea must set principles to protect its national interests regarding issues where the United States and China are disagreeing — such as AIIB entry, Thaad and South China Sea disputes — and adhere to them domestically and internationally.
We learned three lessons from this crisis. First, Korea should not be swayed by different situations due to excessive strategic ambiguity between the United States and China. Just as Korea-U.S. relations should not be forced into an overly vertical alliance, Korea should not be reluctant to make justifiable choices in fear of China’s retaliation. Sometimes, it is the way of middle power diplomacy to adhere to principles by sacrificing short-term interests.
Second, as a middle power, Korea needs to review and enhance comprehensive calculation of national interest, capacity to persuade the citizens and multi-dimensional diplomatic caliber. Realistically, international issues are domestic issues, and domestic issues are international issues. Because there are conflicts of interests, we need an effective control system to manage them collectively. Above all, the government ministries and citizens must have smooth communications, and we need a new system of middle power diplomacy.
Third, China needs to behave like a great power. Being a superpower and maintaining its influence is not easy. In many ways, China is on its way to becoming a superpower, yet the journey is far and rough. Instead of showing off power, it needs to strengthen itself. In the Seoul-Beijing relations, Korea is benefiting economically, and yetthere are many parts that Korea relies on China on the Korean Peninsula affairs. It is unfair to take advantage of the dynamics and test Korea with the North Korean card. As a global leader, China needs to act within the international laws and standards. Beijing must make decisions after considering its potential strategic losses over the Korean Peninsula orders, status in market economy and cost on its reputation.
We hope China to become a charming nation with sophisticated manners to persuade and communicate with others to keep the global balance.
After the Thaad controversy, the two countries should have the wisdom to look at each other more objectively. To seek stability and balance in the dynamic changes, we must focus on real interests rather than emotion and images and look at the future together. National leadership is highlighted at the time of a crisis. When we don’t have solutions, the leader must find one. The government must fix the diplomatic shortcomings exposed in the process and make more solid foundation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 27, Page 28
*The author, a former minister of commerce, industry and energy, is the chairman of the North East Asian Research Institute.