Tough diplomatic challenges ahead

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Tough diplomatic challenges ahead

President Yoon Suk-yeol returns home today after attending the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain. The summit showed a dramatic realignment of the international order between democratic countries led by the United States and authoritarian states led by China and Russia. Strategic Concept 2022 adopted by NATO has defined China as a “structural challenge” on top of security threats from Russia. The intergovernmental military alliance designated China as a country it must check. The incorporation of Finland and Sweden into the security alliance after abandoning their neutrality also demonstrates a profound shift in the new global order.

As the tenth largest economy in the world, Korea also must tackle the breathtaking shifts aggressively. After being invited to the summit as a non-member head of state, Yoon responded by stressing the importance of “international solidarity in protecting freedom and peace.” The comment is a manifestation of his administration’s strategic decision to discontinue the strategic ambiguity the Moon Jae-in administration sought for five years.

Strengthened cooperation with NATO can offer practical benefits to Korea. If the Yoon administration strikes a global partnership with NATO as planned, Korean companies can advance into the space market in Europe more easily. The partnership will also help Korean companies with competitiveness in semiconductors and reactors, not to mention helping reduce Korea’s overreliance on China for exports and imports.

But everything has both dark and bright sides. Reinforced cooperation with NATO will surely test Korea’s diplomatic capabilities. After Yoon attended the summit, China expressed disappointment straightforwardly. Given China’s enormous share in trade — more than America, Japan and Europe combined — and China’s help with North Korean denuclearization, Seoul must closely cooperate with Beijing. It is not desirable for the government to give the impression that Korea aggressively participates in encircling China after turning its back on the neighbor.

If the Yoon administration fails to manage its relations with China wisely, it can deal a critical blow to national interest. The government needs to deal with China on an agenda basis rather than passively being drawn into a U.S.-led world order.

To China, the government must fully explain its position not to trigger unnecessary hostilities. To the U.S., it must be able to say what it must. Principled diplomacy not sacrificing national interest is the way to go. It won’t be easy. But we hope the Yoon administration will prove it can.
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