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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Nov. 20)

Editorials from Korean Dailies 07:03 November 20, 2018

'Belt and Road' dilemma
: South Korea should walk diplomatic tightrope

China has asked South Korea to participate in its ambitious global infrastructure drive, called the "Belt and Road Initiative." The request is part of Beijing's efforts to attract more countries into the modern-day Silk Road project. No doubt, China's aim is to revive its ancient trade network of land and sea routes.

According to Cheong Wa Dae, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on President Moon Jae-in to take part in the initiative during their summit Saturday on the sidelines of this year's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Papua New Guinea.

However, Moon and his office have yet to decide whether to accept Xi's request, because it was made amid the escalating trade war between the United States and China. Simply put, the Moon administration is in a dilemma over the Chinese call because the U.S. is strongly against the Belt and Road program for fear of Beijing's rising influence.

In fact, the APEC summit was overshadowed by the intensified rivalry between the world's two largest economies over trade and investment as well as diplomacy and security. Xi denounced the U.S. for trade protectionism that is stoking a trade war with China. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence harshly criticized China for its infrastructure drive, which he claimed put many countries in a sea of debt.

It seemed the G2 giants clashed head-on over global leadership. The U.S., which will not give up its status as the world's sole superpower, is trying to check the rise of China, which is jockeying for greater influence in the region and across the globe.

Taking into account this Sino-U.S. confrontation, Xi's call for South Korea to join the Belt and Road project is raising concern about what position Seoul should take. If it complies with the demand, Moon may face a strong backlash from its strongest ally, the U.S. This could also derail Moon's efforts for inter-Korean rapprochement and put the shared goal of North Korea's denuclearization in jeopardy.

If it rejects the request, the government might risk souring ties with China, South Korea's largest trading partner. This could make it difficult for the South to expect Beijing to play a more active role in the denuclearization and peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

The Moon administration cannot ignore China's economic retaliation against South Korea for the deployment of a U.S. missile defense battery on its soil. Now China has virtually lifted the retaliation and mended the soured ties.

Some diplomatic experts said China's request for the South's participation in the Belt and Road drive could be seen as a move to force Seoul to choose between Washington and Beijing. They expressed worries that South Korea might be caught in the crossfire.

This explains why Seoul should walk a diplomatic tightrope to avoid collateral damage arising from the escalating rivalry between the G2 mammoths. The question is whether the Moon administration can cope with this rapidly changing situation.

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