A long-lasting war
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The waning superpower has begun to take on its rising rival. The United States pulled the trigger after China’s gross domestic product (GDP) swelled to nearly two thirds of its own. The so-called Chinese dream envisioned by its leader Xi Jinping to make China the center of the world again clashed with U.S. President Donald Trump’s America First campaign. The game of chicken between the two superpowers has rocked the global security and economic landscape.
The clash of the two largest economic powers is endangering the entire global community. International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde called for restraint in the ongoing trade war between the United States and China as the global economy would take “a significant hit,” forewarning that their tariff race could wipe put our $455 billion — a loss larger than South Africa’s economy — from the world’s GDP next year. She warned no one would gain from such a ruinous war.
Graham Allison — a Harvard University scholar and author of “Destined for War,” who applied the Thucydides trap theory to study the U.S.-China conflict — went so far as to claim that the two are on a collision course for war and predicted a military standoff panning out in the East Asian bloc — Taiwan, the South China Sea or the Korean Peninsula. Chinese media has been reminding the Chinese people of China’s triumph over the United Sates in their heated battle in Gangwon during the 1950-53 Korean War to drum up some spirit against the U.S. intimidation. The development is menacing and unpleasant.
The faceoff between Trump and Xi is no longer a two-way confrontation. Korea can hardly side with either the United States or China for either security or economics. A reckless move could be fatal for Korea due to its geopolitical vulnerability. Korea must avoid both entrapment and abandonment in its relationship with global powers. This poses a diplomatic dilemma for Korea.
Chinese diplomats and intellectuals believe that time is in China’s favor as long as Beijing withstands Trump’s presidential term and avoids a full-fledged war with America. Beijing has already postured itself for a long-term battle that reminds us of the infamous self-reliance during the Mao Zedong period. Xi has even courted Russia to forge a neo-Cold War front against the United States by pitching its industrial, trade and foreign exchange prowess to boast of its confidence to take on any challenge.
Indeed, time could be in Xi’s favor since the Chinese president established the legal ground to rule the country as long as he wants to. Even if Trump wins a second term, his term ends eventually. If Trump cannot tame China in his time, the United States cannot be sure of its eventual victory as there is no guarantee the next Oval Office tenant will be as tough as Trump in the battle against China. Will China be able to laugh in the end?
Korea cannot be comfortable as it is sandwiched in the superpowers’ struggle. It secretly wishes a Big Brother would step in to teach a lesson to an unruly bully in the neighborhood.
But at the same time, Korea hopes the free trade order won’t be upset by the fight between the two heavyweights for the sake of its exports-reliant economy. Korea hopes the United States upholds free trade and China engages in democracy. But it needs to keep a low profile so as not to attract unnecessary attention from the touchy states engaged in the battle.
Some say there could be opportunities in this crisis. But the risk factor is bigger. The Korean economy retreated 0.4 percent in the first quarter compared to the previous quarter and saw its first current-account deficit in seven years in April. Yet there is no sense of urgency to tackle the challenge among policymakers. Our foreign affairs team is nowhere to be seen. Foreign affairs should be left to the career diplomats during times of crisis.
Government officials and politicians should be discreet in addressing Chinese and U.S. officials. Political differences must be put aside at times of external dangers. There is a joke in America that when two people are in a room, the Americans sue one another, the Chinese trade and Koreans fight.
Seoul must seek to renew the currency swap with Tokyo that expired in February 2015 in order to build protection against a looming crisis. We must get past personal emotions and political interests to survive our current tumultuous times.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 10, Page 9