Ignoring a storm

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Ignoring a storm

Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.


The U.S.-China conflict is escalating amid the U.S. presidential race, leading to the decisions of Washington and Beijing to close consulates in each other’s country. The situation reminded me a memory from four years ago, when I was working as a correspondent in Beijing.

At the time, many Chinese people welcomed Donald Trump’s presidential victory. There were major concerns that the United States would push a containment strategy against China if Hillary Clinton secured a victory. The Chinese people expected that they could get a give-and-take deal with Trump, a businessman-turned politician.

Now I wonder whom the Chinese people hope to see as the next U.S. president. They probably learned by now that the U.S.’s strategy toward China is not a matter of which party wins the election.

It is symbolic that the Trump administration preemptively closed the Chinese consulate general in Houston, since it is the first diplomatic mission that China opened in the United States.

U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo gave a speech the next day. It was meticulously planned, commencing the event by choosing the Nixon Library as the designated venue. Pompeo likened China to Frankenstein by quoting Nixon, who paved the way for U.S-China diplomatic relations and eventually allowed China’s rise. Nixon later told his friend, New York Times columnist William Safire, that he feared he had created a “Frankenstein” by opening the world to China.

Since Nixon, all U.S. administrations pushed an engagement policy toward China, based on the belief that China will become a responsible stakeholder in the international society when it accepts a market economy, becomes rich, and someday accomplishes political democratization.

In his 2017 book, “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Graham Allison wrote that such a belief is a fallacy.

The current U.S.-China conflict is the outcome we are facing after we woke up from the illusion. China’s economic growth was even faster than the U.S. expected, but it is not fulfilling the U.S. expectations that it will accept the international order and expand political freedoms. The series of recent U.S. hardline measures reflect Washington’s frustration that it won’t be able to stop China if it misses the timing.

Pompeo’s speech is an example of stronger pressure on China, starting from the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States to Vice President Mike Pence’s address in October 2018. The term war was actually used. In September 2018, Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operation, used the term, “gray war,” to describe the conflict with China in the South China Sea.

This presumed war is not someone else’s business. It is a perfect storm directly linked to our destiny. The Moon Jae-in administration’s Korean Peninsula process and various projects are inevitably affected by the U.S.-China conflict.

For example, the plans to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resume tours to Mt. Kumgang and to arrange Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Korea will be affected. Because U.S. pressure is increasingly growing for Korea to participate in the containment campaign against China, Xi’s visit will have a very significant meaning. Korea’s foreign and national security policies are destined to be affected by the U.S.-China conflict.

Moon, who is extremely careful about reshuffles, recently replaced his foreign and security aides, naming Suh Hoon, Park Jie-won and Lee In-young to top posts. The reshuffle is clearly an attempt to persuade North Korea. There is no sign that Moon had considered other outside factors.

Moon probably wants to send a special envoy to the North, although Pyongyang rejected the proposal several times, and try to mediate between North Korea and the United States as he did. But there is no strategy other than tenacity. Do we really need to applaud his audacity to remain calm in front of what are perceived as imminent storms?
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