Koreans see China rising, but much prefer Uncle Sam

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Koreans see China rising, but much prefer Uncle Sam

Koreans invoke the saying, "In a fight between whales, a shrimp's back gets broken," to describe the country's historical position between competing powers in East Asia. 
A recent survey illustrates popular awareness of this vulnerability, with most Koreans expressing a preference for cooperation with the United States in almost all fields — but admitting the possibility that neighboring China could overtake Korea's longtime ally as the dominant power in East Asia.
According to an opinion survey conducted by the Asia Research Institute at Seoul National University at the request of the JoongAng Ilbo, 67.8 percent of respondents chose the United States when asked which country they support in the growing U.S.-China rivalry. A mere 4.4 percent said they supported China.
However, only 53.7 percent of respondents said they believed the United States would come out on top when asked who would prevail in the competition between the two countries, while 11.5 percent said that China could triumph.
The differing responses to the two questions signaled awareness among Koreans that China is a force to reckon with — and one that could possibly eclipse the United States, which Korea has long relied on for security guarantees.
The survey polled 1,031 individuals over the age of 18 and had a confidence interval of 95 percent, with a 3.1 percent margin of error.
Even more striking was the respondents' opinions regarding the future of the power balance in East Asia, a region that was part of the Chinese-led geopolitical order and cultural sphere before the 20th century, the latter half of which witnessed the United States becoming the security guarantor of not only Korea, but also Japan and self-governing Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.
Almost 59.9 percent of individuals polled said they believed there was a possibility that China could become the dominant power in East Asia — almost twice the 31.8 percent who said they did not believe such a power shift away from the United States would happen.
However, when asked what they thought of China's possible rise to regional dominance, an overwhelming 78.5 percent of respondents said they did not see such a change in a positive light.
The United States also led China in every field as Koreans' preferred choice of partner for cooperation.
Almost all respondents — 98.6 percent — said they preferred to work with the United States in dealing with Covid-19, reflecting widespread faith in the U.S.-developed Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.  
The United States was also seen as a more trustworthy partner by 95.8 percent of respondents in the realm of human rights, an area where the country has locked heads with China over multiple issues, such as Hong Kong and the treatment of the ethnic Uighur minority.
Even though China leads the United States as the top market for Korean exports, two-thirds of respondents said they preferred to cooperate with the latter in trade, reflecting long-lasting bitterness over Beijing's response to the deployment of a U.S. missile shield on the peninsula, which included a ban on Chinese tourist groups to Korea and restrictions on Korean companies operating in China.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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