Not a bad start

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Not a bad start

The first summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping was not so bad. Though both leaders adhered to their existing positions while exchanging tits for tats, they were able to avoid a serious clash largely thanks to their tacit agreement not to go over the top. That is a fortunate development for Korea, a country arguably the most vulnerable to deteriorations in their relationship.

In the online conversation on Tuesday — the leaders’ first summit in the 10 months after Biden came into office — the two heads of state showed clear differences on key issues. On the most sensitive issue of Taiwan, Biden said he does not support Taiwan’s independence yet expressed an unequivocal opposition to any changes to the status quo.

Here, more weight is given to Biden’s opposition to any changes in the current situation. That reaffirms his strong aversion to China’s attempt to unify Taiwan by force. The U.S. president demonstrated such a firm stance on nearly all issues, including conflict-free navigation in the South China Sea, human rights and trade discord.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that both presidents sent signals of cooperation on various issues like the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Another noticeable point was Biden’s remarks on the need to establish “common-sense guardrails” to stably manage their bilateral relationship.

A summit alone cannot help ease deepening U.S.-China friction. The two countries will be engaged in a fierce strategic competition to get the upper hand in reshaping an international order in the post-Cold War era. Therefore, a real clash can occur between them at any time.

But the two superpowers must compete based on rules and prevent themselves from turning to the extremes. In that sense, the biggest achievement of the summit could be talking at all. As a Chinese media outlet noted, the summit itself sends a positive signal to the rest of the world.

Korea is stuck in the middle of the Sino-U.S. rivalry. The more they disagree, the more problems Korea faces with its strategic positioning, not to mention maintaining strategic ambiguity between the two. If Korea takes a misstep in managing its security risks or makes a wrong judgment in the realigning of the global supply chain or the reshaping of technological alliances, it could cause colossal losses to its economic interests.

Korea has no other choice but to consolidate its alliance with the U.S. for security reasons while not disregarding its trade cooperation with China. The government must watch carefully the international community’s response to the profound and growing Sino-U.S. rivalry and sharpen its foreign policy.
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