Earning reliability from both
The author, former president of the Korean Association of International Studies, is a professor at Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
As the coronavirus rages on around the world, the United States and China are still blaming each other for causing the pandemic. After placing Beijing’s state-owned Huawei on its trade blacklist last year, Washington recently took steps to ban WeChat and TikTok, demanding that Seoul hop on the bandwagon.
Amid such a critical moment, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo, visited Busan on Aug. 21 for a two-day trip to hold his first face-to-face meeting with Suh Hoon, director of the Blue House National Security Office. It appears both sides failed to agree on specific details of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s possible visit to Korea by the end of the year.
Instead, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is expected to visit Korea if it hosts a Korea-China-Japan summit later this year as scheduled.
The Blue House quoted Suh as saying during the meeting with Yang that “a relationship of co-prosperity and friendly cooperation” between the United States and China is crucial for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia and the world. Yang reportedly mentioned the Sino-U.S. disputes and Beijing’s stance on those issues.
Last July when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on U.S.-China relations at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, he referred to the Chinese government as the Chinese Community Party and addressed Xi as the general secretary, accusing Xi of being “a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” Pompeo also stressed the need for America to part with Communist China to defend the liberal world, signaling a departure from the decades-old détente initiated by President Richard Nixon, who met Mao Zedong in 1972.
No matter who gets elected in the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential race, it appears Washington’s foreign policy placing American interests first will not change. As a result, pressures on China and North Korea will continue.
U.S. President Donald Trump suggested the Group of Seven, or G7, be held after the election and that the meeting be expanded to a Group of 11 summit to include Korea — presumably to help contain China. Seoul could possibly join the summit as an observer, but it won’t be easy to become an official G11 member as all G7 members must agree unanimously.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry welcomed the expansion of G7, apparently because it expects Seoul to accurately convey the atmosphere of the U.S.-led summit to China, which is not a G7 member.
Seoul must cooperate with other countries, especially Japan, if it wants to maximize its national interests. One way would be to actively seek ways to improve Seoul-Tokyo relations with the next Japanese prime minister.
Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming suggested to Unification Minister Lee In-young in a recent meeting that U.S.-North relations ought to go hand-in-hand with inter-Korean relations like “a two-horse carriage.” But if Washington fails to trust Seoul, it will certainly show no interest in inter-Korean dialogue or cooperation.
It seems that Seoul barely has any chance to play out “mediatory diplomacy” at a time when Washington’s “America First” policy is clashing with Beijing’s “China Dream” drive over global hegemony. In order for Korea to bring both countries together and lubricate dialogue and cooperation through “bridging diplomacy,” it must first become a reliable partner to both sides. Acting on “strategic ambiguity” will only backfire, causing Seoul to lose its place as a possible mediator.
Beijing placed big significance on last month’s Yang-Suh meeting. But we still have a long way to go on the Korean Peninsula peace process. It is time for Korea to look squarely at the present and future of U.S.-China relations, and work toward earning reliability from both countries.