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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 26)

All News 07:04 May 26, 2021

Diplomatic dilemma
: South Korea finds it harder to keep balancing act

China's reaction to the outcome of last week's summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden was overwhelmingly negative. The reason is simple: A closer alliance and partnership between Seoul and Washington could be detrimental to Beijing's core interests.

Beijing particularly took issue with the joint statement issued Friday by Moon and Biden after their first face-to-face meeting. China appeared to be angry because the statement dealt with a "sensitive" issue, namely Taiwan. On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China cannot tolerate any foreign interference on the Taiwan matter. He added (the) "relevant countries should be careful in speech and deed on the issue of Taiwan, and not play with fire." His remarks were seen as a warning to Moon and Biden who agreed to work together to ensure peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

China complained about the just-ended summit apparently because it was the first time that the two allies mentioned Taiwan-related matters in a joint statement. The more assertive Asian giant also certainly tried to put pressure on Seoul not to join U.S. efforts to contain it.

Presidents Moon and Biden avoided directly mentioning China in their statement, anticipating a backlash from the country amid the escalating Sino-U.S. rivalry. Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming said the statement targeted his country although it was not mentioned by name. He also pointed out that the statement touched on other sensitive issues such as the South China Sea and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) ― an informal anti-China coalition comprised of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

Beijing's reaction did seem to be milder than its protest against the joint statement issued by Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga after their April summit that dealt not only with Taiwan and the South China Sea, but also Hong Kong and Xinjiang while directly mentioning China.

China may believe that South Korea is tilting toward its traditional ally -- the U.S. -- in the face of the great power competition. In fact, Beijing has regarded Seoul as the weakest link in the Washington-led campaign against it. A strengthened Korea-U.S. alliance could deal a blow to China's efforts to lure Seoul to its side to counterbalance America's containment policy.

Now the big question is whether South Korea can maintain its balancing act between the U.S. and China. Korea has so far relied on the U.S. for defense and security, while resorting to China -- its largest trading partner -- for economic growth. The country could be caught in the crossfire of the growing superpower confrontation if it fails to strike a balance between the G2 economies. That is why President Moon may face a diplomatic dilemma with China following the better-than-expected summit with Biden.

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