Vaccines and chips matterPresident Moon Jae-in has his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday. Though the North Korean nuclear threat and South Korea’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) are important issues, the real concerns of South Koreans are whether President Moon can secure enough Covid-19 vaccines in the meeting with the U.S. president. At this juncture, Washington wants close cooperation with Seoul to win its semiconductor war with China. That offers South Korea an opportunity for strategic cooperation with the U.S.
That’s not an easy job. Amid the pandemic and the U.S.-China tech war, vaccines and the chips have emerged as strategic assets any sovereign states must acquire. Biden declared, “We will become an arsenal of vaccines for other countries.” In a virtual conference with CEOs of major chipmakers, including those from South Korea, Japan and the Netherlands, at the White House last month, Biden defined semiconductors as “infrastructure” of the United States. His comments testified to his unflinching determination to lead the global chip and vaccine supply networks.
Moon must do his best to get the vaccines. Biden expressed a williness to share them with other countries, but America still holds the key. The rest of the world is competing to get vaccines from the United States. Fortunately, South Korea can use the semiconductor card to get the vaccines. The United States demands South Korean and Taiwanese chipmakers invest in the United States to help contain China’s ambition to lead the global semiconductor industry.
Establishing a “vaccine and semiconductor alliance” calls for sophisticated strategy and negotiation. The U.S. government expressed a willingness to share 20 million doses of vaccines, but there is no free lunch. Washington will likely demand South Korea join the Quad or make semiconductor investments in the U.S. in return. We may need booster shots even after fully vaccinated to fight virus variants. Korea needs help from America to achieve its “vaccine independence.”
Four Korean business groups have prepared a 40-trillion-won ($35.4-billion) investment package to help the U.S. reinforce its chipmaking and battery industries. But Taiwan and Japan are also vying for investment in America. While Samsung Electronics balked at U.S. investments, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) — the world’s largest foundry — came up with bold plans to increase the number of its plants in the U.S. to six.
The cooperation on vaccines and chips relies on solid trust between the allies. Moon must convince Biden of the need to escalate the alliance to a new level.