Diplomacy is about trust
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Which side should Korea take between the United States and China? A book published early in spring in the United States entitled “Asia’s New Geopolitics” caught my attention. Michael Auslin, an Asia expert, presented his imagination with the assumption of a U.S.-China war in 2025. Interestingly, he predicts that Japan and Australia remains on side of the United States after the war but that Korea breaks the Korea-U.S. alliance and sticks to the pro-China bloc. He expects Korea to inevitably share its fate with China due to geopolitical factors. Of course, he may be wrong. But we need to think about why increasingly more American experts view the situation this way.
The world will change if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3. However, the U.S.-China discord will intensify further. The Trump administration is more hostile toward China than any past administrations and is enraged that the Xi Jin-ping government is promoting trade and security as well as ideological offensives. In order to justify the ruling ideology, China removes anti-China postings on TikTok and tweets hundreds of thousands of pro-China messages on Twitter. Moreover, four out of 15 UN agencies are headed by Chinese organizations and openly promote pro-China policies. If Biden wins, he is likely to pick on human rights issues in China and will attempt to reinforce alliances with Korea. No matter who wins the election, the United States and China will level up pressure on Korea to take a side.
Following the Park Geun-hye administration, the Moon Jae-in administration has been walking on a tightrope between the United States and China in the name of “strategic ambiguity.” By not openly declaring a side, Korea wants to get along with both. But look at the U.S.-China relations. A few days ago, Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo denied that Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha’s “3 No’s” principles — no additional Thaad deployment, no joining of a broader U.S. missile defense system and no Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance — was agreed upon by China. The Chinese foreign ministry insisted that an agreement was reached.
Probably because there were so many clashes in the Korea-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting on Oct. 15, the defense minister’s press conference was cancelled. Officials in the Moon administration make comments shaking the Korea-U.S. alliance, and the United States constantly refute it. This strange thing is repeatedly happening. It is not just about the United States and China. If Korea puts into action a Supreme Court ruling which ordered Japanese companies to pay for forced labor during World War II, Japan’s fierce retaliation will surely begin.
Why is this happening? It is because the current administration lost “trust” in China and Japan. Focusing on the North Korea issues and domestic politics, stable foreign policy with long-term perspective cannot be possible. The 3 No’s principle had a bad beginning, but if Minister Kang had already announced it. Ambassador Nam shouldn’t have repeatedly denied it to stir China. Also, trust was lost from the United States after delivering hopeful views about North Korea out of its impatience to mediate between North Korea and the United States. With Japan, trust cannot be built after retracting the comfort women deal made by the former administration after two years.
On the international stage, there is no distinction between politics and economy. If diplomacy goes wrong, countries often retaliate with trade, such as retaliatory tariffs, export bans on high-tech items and pop culture bans. If foreign policy goes wrong, national economy is hurt. If strategic ambiguity wins distrust from all, it is worse than taking one side.
Former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun had won the heart of U.S. President George W. Bush after fighting countless times early in the administration. President Roh kept his promise to send troops to Iraq despite domestic resistance. Bush was moved and eased sanctions on North Korea’s $25 million fund tied up in Banco Delta Asia.
The priority is to build trust if you want to improve relations with both the United States and China.