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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 22)

Diplomacy 07:12 March 22, 2021

Avoid collateral damage
Sino-US confrontation becomes intensified

The high-level meetings between the United States and China in Alaska last week have raised concerns that already tense bilateral relations could get worse. The Sino-U.S. rivalry is likely to become intensified further down the road.

From the start of the two-day ministerial talks Thursday, both sides exchanged barbs with each other, breaking diplomatic protocol. In his opening remarks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised thorny issues regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan and cyberattacks. Then, Yang Jiechi, the foreign affairs chief of the Chinese Communist Party, shot back by strongly accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy for criticizing China on human rights and other issues.

It seems inevitable for the world's two largest economies to be on a head-on collision course at a time when the U.S. is stepping up its efforts to contain the rise of China. The first face-to-face talks since the inauguration of President Joe Biden came right after Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Japan and South Korea to strengthen America's alliance with its two key Asian partners and build its anti-China coalition in the Indo-Pacific region.

The talks ended with a somewhat eased tone. Yang described them as "candid, constructive and helpful," although the two sides agreed to disagree on major issues. Now the question is whether Washington and Beijing can narrow their differences and work together to cope with common global issues such as climate change, nonproliferation and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Skeptics point out that the G2 countries will face a rocky road ahead because neither shows any signs of compromise. The Biden administration, which has inherited former President Donald Trump's hardline policy toward China, is focusing on countering the Asian giant. It is as if the U.S. is on the verge of slipping into Thucydides' Trap as seen in the Peloponnesian War triggered by Sparta's fear of a rising Athens. China, for its part, has vowed not to make any concessions to safeguard its core values such as national sovereignty and security.

Yet both sides should realize that their confrontation, if deepened, could inflict irrecoverable damage on each other. Trump's trade and technology war with China already proved to be a lose-lose game. Biden is trying to expand the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad comprising the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, to keep a more assertive China in check.

What's worrisome is that the escalating Sino-U.S. conflict could bring about a new cold war. Imagine such a war taking place on the Korean Peninsula between the U.S.-led coalition and the group of China, Russia and North Korea. That would make it almost impossible to realize the denuclearization of North Korea and establish a lasting peace in Northeast Asia.

South Korea is now under pressure to join the Quad. More seriously, the country could someday be forced to choose between the U.S. ― its traditional security ally ― and China ― its largest trading partner. The Moon Jae-in administration needs to map out a new strategy to avoid any collateral damage arising from the ever-intensifying G2 rivalry.
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