Rebuild the trilateral cooperationDuring the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference last Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden underscored the importance of democratic values. “Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values.” He said. “They’re not transactional. They’re not extractive.” Biden also highlighted the need to “prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.” Biden’s remarks are a manifestation of Washington’s determination to pressure China based on multilateral cooperation with U.S. allies on global issues. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken jumped on the bandwagon by agreeing to strongly oppose any attempts by China to upset the status quo by force in a Quad meeting with foreign ministers of Japan, India and Australia last week.
After China’s dramatic rise on the global stage, an anti-China front is being formed rapidly among countries in Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Despite the seismic shift in international relations, the Moon Jae-in administration has focused on improving relations with China and North Korea and clashing with Japan over history. In the meantime, South Korea has repeatedly neglected its decades-old alliance with Uncle Sam, which forced South Korea to be isolated from the rest of the world.
On recognizing such a grim reality, the Moon administration hurriedly attempted to improve diplomatic ties with Japan. But Tokyo is not excited. Unless the discords over the wartime sexual slavery and forced labor is not resolved in the way it wants, it would not shake hands with Seoul. South Korea clearly needs U.S. cooperation to improve its relations with North Korea, but is embarrassed that the Biden administration demands South Korea improve its relations with Japan first.
In the face of tough challenges, a government must return to basics. The Moon administration must prioritize reinforcing its diplomatic ties with the U.S., which shares democracy and human rights. Then the government must back it up by rebuilding tripartite cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, a core of the Biden administration’s Northeast policy. If improving relations with Japan is difficult, Seoul can propose a tripartite meeting among foreign ministers of South Korea, Japan and the U.S. to find a breakthrough. If Seoul can push for a summit based on the results of the ministerial meeting, it can open the way to ending diplomatic isolation.
At the same time, the Moon administration needs to take a forward-looking approach to participating in Quad after reversing its submissive position toward China. If the Moon government blindly respects China, it will not only be removed from a de facto league of democracies being pursued by Biden, but be subjugated to China more than before, the worst-possible situation.
President Moon must speak up to China while cooperating with it on several issues. German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined the Biden administration’s China-bashing, but at the same time reminded America of the need to cooperate with China on issues such as global warming or bio diversity. We urge the Moon administration to take a cue from the German flexibility.