Weathering the cloud
The author is a professor at Ajou University and director for U.S.-China Policy Institute.
The Moon Jae-in administration is sinking deeper into a diplomatic and security slump. The pressure is growing from the U.S. government to jump on its anti-China bandwagon on the security and economic front. As soon as U.S. President Donald Trump came into office, Washington thrashed America’s long-standing leadership based on liberal internationalism and strategic partnership with China.
Instead, the Trump administration has pursued Americanism and protectionism to guard its industries and placed China as its strategic rival. It has been rounding up governments, who share similar values, to form an anti-China alliance and accelerate decoupling from China to wean global chain off the No. 2 economy. For instance, Washington is pursuing to create “Economic Prosperity Network” with “trusted partners” and extending the family of the Quad, a dialogue channel among for Indo-Pacific countries — Australia, Japan, India and the United States.
When President Moon came into office, Seoul was under tremendous pressure from neighboring powers. It suffered a boycott and economic retaliation from Beijing for deploying the U.S. antimissile system and clashed with Tokyo over wartime issues. Seoul became distant with Moscow and faced growing pressure from Washington.
Security tensions escalated due to repeated nuclear and missile provocations from Pyongyang. Normally, a state would have sought to strengthen ties with traditional allies or reinforce internal capability through political unity and economic development.
But rapprochement would work under the key external condition — strategic cooperation between Washington and Beijing. The two Koreas can hardly battle with external factors and pressures amid a critical dearth of mutual trust and a sense of insecurity.
U.S-China relations worsened faster and broadly. The Neo Cold War, or Second Cold War, is being mentioned to describe their hegemonic struggle.
Still, Seoul prioritized harmony and cooperation with North Korea as top policy on the external front. But while Seoul stands on the same footing, the international political scene and paradigm is changing rapidly and dramatically.
After learning of the limits of America First, the Trump administration is campaigning to establish anti-China security and economic front with traditional allies. The offensive has expanded from the trade to science and technology and security and diplomacy.
South Korea is pressured to make a choice across the board. In the Cold War-like international environment, one misjudgment could cost the nation heavily.
Seoul is being beckoned to join the Quad Plus. Washington tries to expand the alliance created under the Obama administration by adding South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam and the Philippines.
For now, standing by the United States looks tempting as America has the upper hand in technology and power. But the war between the United States and China is not a win-lose game. China will remain Korea’s closest neighbor and the world’s biggest market. The choice cannot be easy.
Fortunately, the new Cold War front is not clear-cut as in the first one between the United States and Soviet-led Communist bloc. While the United States and China stand at the polarized end, the rest of the world is worried about their conflict and ramifications. In other words, there is still maneuvering room for Seoul.
Korea must meticulously prepare for the perils and risks from the U.S-China conflict and seek opportunities. The Moon administration must stretch its foreign policy beyond inter-Korean affairs and strengthen diplomatic capabilities.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.