It’s time to play the long game

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

It’s time to play the long game

Choi Yong-min

The author is the head of the World Trade Center Seoul and former head of the Institute for International Trade.

Amid the U.S.-China hegemony contest, “U.S. for security, China for economy” is often mentioned as Korea’s foreign policy strategy. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in August 1992, Korea’s exports to China recorded $49.8 billion in 2003, up 47.8 percent from the previous year and surpassing Korea’s export to the U.S. at $42.8 billion that year. The development became the realistic foundation for “U.S. for security, China for economy.” Also, as China’s role as the mediator for the North Korean nuclear issue emerged, the vague tightrope walk between America and China was highlighted as a clever tactic and wise compromise.

But since the Thaad crisis in late 2016, a new trend began to appear. Some Korean companies which thrived after advancing to China since the establishment of relations were persecuted and withdrew, and highly popular Korean dramas and games suddenly disappeared in China. Moreover, as the latest U.S.-China contest expanded to a technology war, a return to the Cold War is in progress. As the U.S. and China are pressuring Korea to show which side it is on, should Korea put an end to the dichotomy of the U.S. for security and China for economy?

Korea may want to stop the dual approach and shout for democracy and a free market. But the reality is not that easy. There is no doubt that China will overtake the U.S. and become the biggest global market around 2030. We should also admit the reality that there is no partner to replace China in building a stable supply chain for future industries.

As imports of lithium hydroxide — a key material for secondary batteries — from China increased by 404 percent in the first half, Korea’s reliance on China is nearly absolute. Some say that Korea can pressure China by using semiconductors as a weapon, but it is a short-sighted opinion that does not take the other side into account. Chipmakers cherish the division of work within the industry. For instance, Korean companies conduct wafer processing in Chinese factories, import them, and do wafer-cutting and packaging in Korea. Therefore, if one side is paralyzed, both countries suffer.

Strictly weighing the balance of economy and security, the mantra of America for security and China for economy can be modified a bit. But we easily reach a conclusion that the dual process is still necessary. A pragmatic alternative is to build skills internally and minimize external words and actions for a while.

We can learn from Japan’s response to China. Japan cut ties with Taiwan in 1972 and normalized diplomatic relations with China. It embraced the One China principle. Over the sharp Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands disputes, Tokyo avoided the issue. Whenever a diplomatic issue arises, Japan dispatches a high-level official to Beijing and approaches China through unofficial exchanges.

Korea must avoid choosing between America and China. Low profile diplomacy with China is not the answer, either. A Korean strategy of hiding talent and improving skills is needed to take substantial gains while avoiding conflict. To properly use the frame of “conceal one’s strengths and bide one’s time,” we should refrain from expressing our intentions while trying to maintain an overwhelming technological gap.

Even if there is friction, high-level contacts should be increased. As retired high-level Chinese officials are known to have a strong influence, informal diplomacy should be utilized.

There is no need to react sensitively to Chinese media. Due to the characteristics of a socialist state, we must keep in mind that Chinese media is intended for domestic use. It is necessary to invest more in reinforcing infrastructure to learn about China. China sends young talents to North Korea to learn the language and has diplomats alternate between China, South Korea and North Korea to create Korean Peninsula experts.

If you don’t like your neighbor, you can move. But a country cannot. China is Korea’s closest neighbor and competitor. To effectively deal with China, Korea desperately needs to bide its time and focus on its actual interests.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)