A different angle on Pelosi’s trip

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A different angle on Pelosi’s trip

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

There has been much discussion about President Yoon Suk-yeol not making time to meet visiting U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who flew to Seoul on Aug. 3 after she defied Beijing to make a visit to Taiwan where she lambasted China for human rights violations. Critics speculated that Yoon had avoided a problematic meeting with Pelosi citing his summer break so as not to irk Beijing. They say that Yoon not meeting with Pelosi impairs the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

Although they have a point, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan must not be interpreted as a move representing the U.S. government. President Joe Biden as well as his foreign and security aides, military and mainstream U.S. media like the New York Times and the Washington Post have all opposed her visit to Taiwan. They did not think it was wise to unnecessarily provoke China at a time the U.S. was engaged indirectly with a war with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Although Beijing is Moscow’s closest ally, it has not supplied military equipment to Russia. As the war with Ukraine lasts longer than expected, Russia is running out of weapons. The war could turn out differently if China provides Russia with arms, particularly drones that Russia has been asking for. If escalated tensions around the Taiwan Strait through the momentum of Pelosi’s visit cause an accidental skirmish, a third World War could pan out. Chinese President Xi Jinping would want to manifest his strong stand against Uncle Sam ahead of the Party Congress in November that would confirm his third term. Beijing could respond aggressively to a small clash.

In case of a conflict in the strait, the U.S. would have to fight with Russia in Europe and China in Asia. That scenario is a nightmare for U.S. military. Pelosi, who is retiring at the age of 82, would have wished to leave an impression as a champion of human rights through her visit to Taiwan. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called the trip “utterly reckless, dangerous, and irresponsible.” Even former president Donald Trump, who has not hid his dislike for China, called her “crazy” for going to Taiwan.

The Biden administration as well as neighboring Asian countries have been negative about Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. “What is most critical at the moment is that the temperature is lowered, and calm is restored when it comes to the cross-strait tensions,” said Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong, calling for restraint from all related parties.

As soon as Pelosi left Taipei, Beijing carried out military drills around Taiwan on the biggest scale in 26 years. Chinese fighter jets and drones have been crossing the neutral zone to provoke conflict. China has banned imports of fruits and frozen fish from Taiwan, and foreign enterprises are weighing if they should leave Taiwan.

The conflict around the Taiwan Strait has a direct impact on the Korean Peninsula. The South Korea-U.S. alliance is a pillar of our national security, but at the same time can be a risk. If the U.S. and China clash in the Taiwan Strait, South Korea housing 20,000 American soldiers could be swept up in the conflict. Seoul had to oppose Pelosi’s self-serving visit to Taiwan. When the strait becomes insecure, Korean container ships must detour around the Philippines, causing extra shipping costs.

It would not have been polite if Pelosi had not been greeted by top government officials when she arrived in Seoul. Still, Yoon’s skipping of a meeting with Pelosi could have been commendable, as it sent a message of not disrupting regional security. Not everything should be framed as kowtowing to China. Being friendly to America or China, or the Korea-U.S. alliance or the Korea-China partnership should not be the only principle of foreign policy. Korea’s foreign policy must be based on national interests and democracy-based respect for human rights.
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