Straddling the U.S. and China
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
At the end of last month, Washington was shaken by the leak of the Republican Party’s election strategy. A 57-page report’s key message was that the party must focus on China-bashing instead of defending U.S. President Donald Trump if it wants to win the presidential and congressional elections in November. The report said China should be blamed for the coronavirus pandemic in order to unite voters. It was revealed that the Trump administration’s China-bashing and blaming of it for the pandemic was a part of the presidential reelection campaign. Trump has argued that the pandemic started by a leak of the virus from a research institute in Wuhan. Whether he is right or not, it is clear that the U.S. attacks on China will continue — and become fiercer.
The White House has many anti-China voices. Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger is a leading advocate. Responsible for East Asia policy, Pottinger was a correspondent in Beijing for seven years and witnessed the Chinese government’s antidemocratic behavior. He was once arrested and beaten by the China’s public security forces for trying to investigate corruption. He recalled that such an experience made him hate the Xi Jinping administration.
Stephen Miller, a senior advisor for policy, arranged the travel ban on China. Peter Navarro, the director of Trump’s Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, is also a strong anti-China voice. Given the trio’s activities amid Trump’s China-bashing ahead of the elections, U.S.-China relations will likely deteriorate to the level during the Cold War in the 1960s.
In fact, Trump banned the entry of travelers from China as soon as the pandemic started. Furthermore, he is about to impose various sanctions such as a ban on civil servants pensions investing in Chinese companies and a ban on Chinese components in power grids. He is even considering a bold plan to hold Beijing responsible for the pandemic by not repaying some of treasury bonds owned by China.
Of course, China is considering a response. Beijing is thinking of retaliation by selling off all its U.S. Treasury bonds at once. If that happens, the U.S. government will have trouble funding its national projects.
In the face of dark clouds of a new Cold War between the two superpowers, what should Korea — which relies on the United States for security while its economy is dependent on China — do? Both countries will pressure Korea to pick a side. The Trump administration is already pressuring its allies in Europe to join its retaliatory measures against China.
What should be our stance? The most persuasive strategy is balanced diplomacy. It is a policy promoted by Han Sung-joo, director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and a renowned international political scientist. Han said Korea must keep its alliance with the United States and its friendship with China. For example, Korea should participate in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy to check China, while supporting China’s “Belt and Road” initiative. To put it roughly, Korea must exercise the delicate diplomacy of straddling between the United States and China to keep both countries close.
It may sound irrational, but there is no need to be completely candid in diplomacy. You can be seen as being faithful and sincere to both parties. Diplomacy is the art of harmonizing contradictory foreign policies.
Prince Gwanghae (1575-1641) is remembered as the leader with the best foreign affairs accomplishments in the Joseon Dynasty’s history. Although he is remembered as a tyrant who killed his siblings and dethroned his stepmother, he protected Joseon’s national interests with a neutral, pragmatic diplomacy in the early 17th century, when the Ming dynasty was collapsing while the Later Jin — which later became the Qing — was rising.
When Ming asked for reinforcements to defeat the Later Jin in return for Ming’s help for Joseon during the 1592-58 Japanese invasion of Joseon, the prince sent 13,000 troops. But he advised General Kang Hong-lip to discreetly act in tune with the great power shift in Northeast Asia at the time.
Although he was heading the reinforcements under the command of Ming, Kang communicated with the Later Jin and managed to keep Korea out of the two countries’ fight.
It could have been an unimaginable act for a Confucian country that values responsibilities and justifications. But it was a wise — and pragmatic — choice. When our politics are sharply split between pro-U.S. and pro-China factions, we can glean some wisdom from Prince Gwanghae to resolve the conundrum.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 12, Page 30