A cool-headed approach is needed
Amid the tense U.S.-China relations since the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump's administration has come up with the Economic Prosperity Network initiative to counter China's ever-growing supply networks. Beijing has enacted a national security law for Hong Kong to stop the United States from interfering in China's domestic affairs. The exchange of violent words — such as what Beijing called an "insane reaction" from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and what Washington called a "brutal, totalitarian regime" in China — heralds the advent of a new Cold War era.
Under such volatile circumstances, the Moon Jae-in administration must take a calm and strategic approach to ensure security and the national interest. The U.S. is South Korea's pivotal ally and China a crucial trade partner. If Seoul blindly follows the U.S.'s China containment policy, it must pay a huge price on trade. Korea must strike a delicate balance between the two nations by maintaining strategic ambiguity and approaching a number of issues case by case.
In this respect, Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hyun-chong made imprudent remarks last week. "The deepening U.S.-China conflict makes us embarrassed," he said during a meeting with lawmakers-elect of the ruling Democratic Party. In fact, America and China have not yet forced Korea to take sides. Keith Krach, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, did mention a discussion with his Korean counterpart on the U.S. initiative, but it is not a concrete demand yet. So why did Kim volunteer to narrow Korea's strategic positioning by exposing the government's distress? President Moon's former Chief of Staff Im Jong-seok also made an inappropriate statement the other day. Exposing that Stephen Biegun, former U.S. special representative for North Korea, had "pressured Seoul to stop all inter-Korean cooperation," Im insisted on the resumption of the South-North relations and expansion of Seoul's aid to Pyongyang. The deadlocked inter-Korean ties resulted from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's refusal to talk with President Moon. Pyongyang's persistent nuclear armaments make it even harder for Seoul to help it economically in the face of international sanctions. The Moon administration's desire to expand inter-Korean exchanges under such circumstances only helps diminish Seoul's diplomatic leverage.
The Moon administration must take a prudent approach to Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Seoul. Because of its worsening ties with Washington, Beijing needs to maintain friendly relations with its neighbors, including South Korea. Our government must take advantage of this opportunity so that Xi himself expresses a willingness to trip to South Korea.
Some pundits expect a compromise between Washington and Beijing after the November U.S. presidential election. But their rivalry primarily comes from the need to win a global war on hegemony. For South Korea, a need to take sides will come. That calls for long-term strategies for South Korea to weather an ongoing conflict.
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