Strategic approach is neededSuh Hoon, director of President Moon Jae-in’s National Security Office, is to meet with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, in Busan on Saturday. The visit by one of China’s top diplomatic officials takes place at a sensitive time when the Sino-U.S. conflict is more complicated than ever. In the meantime, President Moon’s effort to improve inter-Korean relations has failed due to North Korea’s dismissal of his peace offensive — and his approval ratings fell dramatically because of his administration’s repeated policy failures.
The Moon administration desperately wants a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul to turn around the situation with a single stroke. Xi has not visited South Korea since 2014, fueling Moon’s anxiety by delaying a reciprocal visit after Moon’s state visit to China in December 2017. On China’s part, it may have judged that now is a good time to draw South Korea to its side through Yang’s trip to Busan and fix the schedule for Xi’s visit.
China faces an unprecedented crisis from mounting U.S. pressure to establish the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) with its allies to counter China’s growing power and its persistent campaign to sabotage the business of Huawei. Washington is also pressing ahead with the deployment in Asia of intermediate-range nuclear missiles targeting China. Xi’s dispatch of Yang three months after his phone conversation in May with Moon reflects Beijing’s desire to bring Seoul to its side. In the meeting with Suh, Yang will likely demand that South Korea break away from the U.S-led anti-China front in return for Xi’s trip to Seoul within this year.
The Moon administration must take a cool-headed approach. China is not only our key trade partner, but also plays a crucial role in addressing North Korea’s nuclear threat and enhancing inter-Korean ties. And yet, the Moon administration’s equidistant diplomacy between China and the United States in tough times like this is nothing but an empty slogan of a middle power. The government must protect our core interests based on the decades-old alliance with the United States and reach an understanding with China.
We are deeply concerned about the government’s approach. In Wednesday’s meeting with U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris, Unification Minister Lee In-young criticized the South Korea-U.S. working group, which deals with North Korean denuclearization and inter-Korean relations. Yang’s trip to Busan at the peak of Sino-U.S. confrontations could provoke a misunderstanding from Washington. Yet the unification minister expressed to the ambassador a willingness to push forward economic cooperation with Pyongyang even by detouring international sanctions. That will likely provoke suspicion from Washington.
U.S.-China friction will deepen until the Nov. 3 presidential election in the United States — and it will not change even if Donald Trump is defeated. As America tries to include Japan in the Five Eyes — an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States — a power battle between the West and China is only getting more acute. Squeezed between large powers as always, South Korea has no other choice but to engage in strategic diplomacy before it is forced to take sides. The government must show diplomatic skills starting with Yang’s visit to Busan.