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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 23)

All News 09:16 May 23, 2020

US initiative against China
Korea faces risks from superpower rivalry

South Korea is carefully watching a new U.S. initiative aimed at sidelining China from global supply chains in the wake of the escalating confrontation between the two superpowers over the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seoul is taking a cautious approach to Washington's push for the "Economic Prosperity Network" (EPN) which is still at an initial stage.

Yet the country cannot help but worry about the envisioned network described as an alliance of "trusted partners." The reason is because the U.S. indicated that South Korea could be among its targeted members of the network. This indication could be seen as U.S. pressure on its Asian ally to join the initiative apparently designed to isolate China and reduce its global dominance.

Korea seems to feel that it is increasingly forced to choose between the U.S. and China. As things stand now, it is difficult to make such a choice because Korea is dependent on America for its defense and security, while relying on China for economic growth. For this reason, Seoul has been trying to walk a fine line between the G2 countries.

Against this background, the creation of the U.S.-led economic bloc to contain a rising China is a serious cause for concern on the part of Korea. A Seoul official said that the Moon Jae-in administration has no "conclusive" position on the U.S. initiative as it is still in the planning stages. But it was reported that the two countries have already exchanged broad ideas about the EPN.

Korea's semi-official Yonhap News Agency quoted Keith Krach, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, as saying that officials of both countries talked about the initiative during their Senior Economic Dialogue (SED) in Seoul last November. On Wednesday, Krach also said the EPN consists of like-minded countries, companies and civil societies that will operate under "democratic values."

His remarks seemed to imply that the initiative is part of the U.S. policy of containing China not only in trade and economically, but also in diplomacy and security. The EPN plan is taking more concrete shape, especially in the face of the novel coronavirus which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December. The pandemic appears to have provided further momentum for the initiative because the U.S. has suffered from the disruption of global supply chains due to COVID-19.

But the Trump administration is giving the impression that it is taking advantage of the global public health crisis to trigger a new Cold War with China. Recently he even threatened to cut off ties with China. The Commerce Department also announced new restrictions to deny Huawei, China's maker of network equipment and smartphones, access to key U.S. semiconductor technologies.

The raging superpower rivalry may pose a risk to South Korea because it could be caught in the crossfire. It reminds Koreans of China's economic retaliation against Seoul's decision to allow the U.S. to deploy its anti-missile battery here in 2017. Thus the Moon administration should work out new strategies to avoid any possible entanglements in the rising U.S.-China conflict. This is no easy task. But we cannot be a victim of a new Cold War.

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