Don’t look to China
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
We often become slaves to a fixed idea. The mistake is seen in the debate over joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), the loose four-nation Indo-Pacific alliance. Currently, the belief that the Quad is a security cooperative group to block China, and if South Korea joins, China will retaliate economically is gaining momentum.
But those who support joining the Quad warn that if South Korea does not join, it will become a second-tier ally of the United States. They argue that South Korea should stand on the side of the U.S. to block North Korea and China’s threats. Opponents think South Korea is caught between the U.S. and China and taking one side is dangerous. It is true that China’s economic retaliation over the Thaad missile defense system deployment in 2016 was serious. So, South Korea should not announce its stance on Quad in the name of “strategic ambiguity,” some say. That means practically refusing to join.
If so, is the dichotomy right? First, let’s look at the idea of perceiving the Quad as a security group to check China. Trump administration’s aim was to make the Quad a security group to check on China’s rise.
But things have changed now.
At a seminar on May 7, Edgard Kagan, a senior director on the National Security Council of the White House, said that the Quad was not an Asian NATO or a security alliance. He emphasized that it was a group cooperating over public issues such as vaccines, climate change and cyber security. If that’s Washington’s plan, there is no reason for South Korea not to join because of China.
What’s more noteworthy is India’s position. An India expert who was a presenter at the seminar said that India did not want the Quad to evolve into a group security system and opposed any joint military exercise. Also, the Indian government made it clear that Quad decisions cannot come before its own foreign policy with China. So, India wants to coordinate its bilateral relations with China. I
t is not likely that the Quad would evolve into a security system to check China.
I also want to look at the rhetoric that China would retaliate if South Korea joined the Quad. It does not make sense for China to attack South Korea instead of India and Japan, founding members of the Quad members. Of course, China can shamelessly beat on Korea only. Then, Korea needs to cite the precedence of Australia which has faced economic retaliation by China since May 2020 over banning Huawei’s business and advocating an investigation on the cause of coronavirus. Australia’s export to China made up more than 20 percent of its total exports. But despite China’s retaliation for a year, Australia diversified its overseas market and suffered only 2.2 percent decline in overall exports.
Taiwan had military disputes with China last year, as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen refused its One China policy. But Taiwan’s export to China increased by 11.5 percent from $91.8 billion in 2019 to $102.4 billion last year. Vietnam had a serious territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, but its exports to China are on the rise. Discord with China doesn’t necessarily escalate into economic retaliation.
Why did China retaliate against Korea but left Taiwan and Vietnam untouched?
Experts say that it has different perception on each country. Taiwan and Vietnam did not surrender to China’s pressure. But when China’s pressure intensified over the Thaad deployment, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced in 2017 the so-called “3 No’s” policy — no additional Thaad deployment, no joining a broader U.S. missile defense system and no Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance. As a result, Chinese people seem to have a perception that South Korea is a country that can be suppressed if it is pressed. Until when should Korea care about China when deciding on issues like the Thaad deployment and Quad entry?
Unless the perception that Korea is an easy country to turn, we can never be completely free from China’s intervention.