[Column] A Goldilocks strategy

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[Column] A Goldilocks strategy

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

Policies that try to stay in the middle are often unpopular. They satisfy neither the left nor the right. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s moderate “Indo-Pacific Strategy” was criticized by both conservatives and progressives. The issue was China. After the government announced the strategy on Dec. 28, a conservative commentator expressed anger. “Instead of declaring that China, which breaks international laws and regulations frequently, is a threat to Korea, the government called it a strategic partner,” he fumed. The United States used a different tone to approach China. In its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report last February, Washington criticized China by noting that its oppressions and aggressions are all over the world, the worst in the Indo-Pacific region in particular. Canada also criticized China explicitly.

In contrast, the liberals attacked the Yoon administration for joining the Indo-Pacific strategy targeting China. Moon Chung-in, the chairman of Sejong Institute, said, “Korea is not in position to treat China with hostility, since it is its largest trade partner.” Over the same strategy, conservatives are upset that the government failed to attack China properly, while the progressives complained that the government made China an enemy unnecessarily.

But the fact that the strategy was criticized by both sides shows the strategy was appropriate. I believe the government produced this balanced strategy by seriously considering its eventual goal and the cold reality. In fact, the Yoon administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy was a surprise. North Korea is about to conduct its seventh nuclear test at any time, while its drones are flying in South Korean air space. Due to the need for a strong Korea-U.S. alliance, I worried that the Yoon administration would side with the ally and announce a doctrine unilaterally criticizing China. Since Yoon’s foreign affairs and security aides were all pro-U.S. experts, I had serious concerns.

But the strategy released by the government was a surprise. Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy was focused on security issues, but Yoon’s highlighted the economic importance of the region from the beginning. Then, it introduced the concepts of freedom, peace and prosperity followed by the need for inclusiveness. Overall, it was evident that China was a factor seriously considered when creating the strategy.

I came to have a question. Given the importance the Yoon administration attaches to Korea-U.S. relations, how did it present such a lukewarm strategy? After some investigation, my question was answered. First, I realized that the first impression of the strategy — that it treated Korea-U.S. relations lightly — was a misunderstanding after reading an analysis of a U.S. expert. He paid attention to the title of the strategy, “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful, and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region.” He said the title speaks for the Yoon administration’s true intentions.

The Moon Jae-in administration was reluctant to join the Indo-Pacific strategy under the justification of strategic ambiguity. In contrast, the Yoon government announced a doctrine entitled “Indo-Pacific strategy.” That’s an enormous change. I was foolish to just look at a tree, instead of seeing the forest.

Sources said the government had serious considerations before releasing its Indo-Pacific strategy. After creating a draft, relevant ministries reviewed it and revised the draft over and over. Indo-Pacific strategies of the U.S., Japan, Canada and the EU were thoroughly reviewed in the process. Then, how come it did not condemn China, which still sanctions Korean companies for having allowed the deployment of the U.S. Thaad missile defense system in Korea?

First, the Yoon administration had no choice but to accept China’s importance in foreign relations, particularly in regards to North Korea issues.

Second, Korea-China economic relations were also an important factor. Before announcing the strategy, the government reviewed Korea and China’s mutual dependence on 200 major products. The administration concluded that Korean companies were too vulnerable to sever ties with China immediately. As a result, the government concluded that it will take time to reduce Korea’s reliance on China and diversify economic relations.

When we read between the lines of the strategy, the government included a warning to China. “Mutual respect” was listed as a core concept, showing Korea’s intention that it will not tolerate it if China does not follow laws and principles.

Henry Kissinger said the highest virtue of diplomacy was moderation and flexibility. He advised that insisting on an extreme or rigid foreign policy will prevent a country from dealing with a change in a situation. Who would not like fiery things? Even so, maintaining moderation to win practical gains and sometimes presenting a lukewarm strategy is true courage.
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