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(News Focus) S. Korea faces balancing act at G-7 summit

All News 09:35 June 09, 2021

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, June 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea faces a tricky diplomatic balancing act at the upcoming Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Britain, with the United States keen on using the gathering to rally major democracies against an assertive China, analysts said Wednesday.

President Moon Jae-in plans to attend the G-7 session slated to take place from Friday to Sunday in Carbis Bay in Cornwall, Britain. South Korea is not part of the club of wealthy nations but has been invited as a guest, along with Australia, India and South Africa.

President Moon Jae-in speaks at a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on June 8, 2021. (Yonhap)

President Moon Jae-in speaks at a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on June 8, 2021. (Yonhap)

The G-7 gathering comes as the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden pushes to reinvigorate America's democratic alliances to reinforce multilateralism and its global leadership, while South Korea strives to avoid needless entanglement in the Sino-U.S. rivalry.

"From the U.S. standpoint, the G-7 group appears to reflect an intent to form a coalition of some sort to counterbalance China's authoritarian system, after South Korea in a recent summit with the U.S. made a gesture to reshape the military alliance into a comprehensive one," Kim Heung-kyu, the head of the U.S.-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, said.

"At the G-7, South Korea could face a dilemma. It may not be easy to make its own voice heard at the session, but it could face isolation should it not raise it," he added.

Already wading into the rough waters of geopolitics over the last four years in office, Moon accentuated the positive element of the multilateral summit, voicing hope that it will be an opportunity to "upgrade" South Korea's diplomacy.

Yet, the gathering of close U.S. partners -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain -- will be another reminder of the reality that the current geopolitical landscape calls for a thought-out diplomatic strategy based on long-term perspectives.

In recent years, South Korea has been walking a tight diplomatic rope between the major powers, as it wants to strengthen its security alliance with the U.S. and the strategic partnership with China, the country's top trading partner.

Last month's summit between Moon and Biden marked a crucial point in Seoul's diplomacy between Washington and Beijing, as it created an impression that South Korea emerged from ambiguity and displayed more strategic clarity in support of the U.S.

The joint declaration by the leaders of the allies signaled Seoul's backing for Washington's positions on the key geopolitical fault lines of the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, and for its push to reorganize key global tech supply chains.

But Seoul still maintains a circumspect stance on sensitive issues beyond the Korean Peninsula, emphasizing that the joint summit declaration just outlined the two countries' shared understanding in "broad generalities."

This week's G-7 session is likely to pose yet another test to Korea's diplomacy, as Biden is poised to capitalize on the close-knit network of G-7 countries to highlight solidarity among the world's richest democracies and preserve the international "rules-based" order, which he believes is being challenged by China.

This photo, released by the Associated Press on June 4, 2021, shows U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (Yonhap)

This photo, released by the Associated Press on June 4, 2021, shows U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (Yonhap)

A key point of attention will be a new initiative that the G-7 leaders will discuss as an apparent counterweight to China's One Belt One Road infrastructure scheme at the heart of Beijing's charm offensive toward underdeveloped countries.

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Monday that the G-7 leaders will announce the initiative to "provide financing for physical, digital and health infrastructure in the developing world -- a high-standard, climate-friendly, transparent and rules-based alternative to what China is offering."

On Monday, Washington further sharpened its stance against China, outlining a set of measures to address vulnerabilities in supply chains for semiconductors, large-capacity batteries and other areas, as the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a reminder of supply bottlenecks.

It remains uncertain whether the G-7 leaders will use language directly targeting China.

"But should it touch on the issues of Taiwan and Xinjiang, which Beijing regards as internal affairs, China would think of that as a hostile move -- a plausible response that could also affect South Korea," professor Kim said.

Adding to the geopolitical tension was the U.S.' apparent move to signal that South Korea, where it has 28,500 American troops stationed, could be a potential staging ground to support Taiwan in case of a contingency.

Earlier this week, the U.S. military used its C-17 heavy-lift strategic transport aircraft from an air base in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, to support the trip to Taiwan by three U.S. senators seeking to highlight America's regional security commitment.

The use of the military aircraft hinted that U.S. Forces Korea could be mobilized to address the Taiwan issue or other matters related to China under the framework of the South Korea-U.S. alliance beyond its security focus on North Korean threats, observers said.

The G-7 setting could set the stage for a trilateral meeting among Moon, Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, though no plan for the meeting has been announced yet. But Biden has been seeking to bring the two Asian allies closer together to confront challenges from North Korea and China.

Biden's hard-line push against China is expected to reverberate throughout his trip to Europe, which includes a stop in Brussels, where he is to attend separate summits of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union next week.

At the summit with the EU, Biden and other leaders will focus on aligning their approaches to trade and technology "so that democracies and not anyone else -- not China or other autocracies -- are writing the rules for trade and technology for the 21st century," Sullivan said.

The nettlesome dilemma for South Korea stems from the fact that it needs to continue nurturing diplomatic ties with Beijing not only for economic cooperation but also for North Korea's denuclearization.

"There's a need for Seoul to stay on good terms with Beijing given China is the country's largest trading partner and also a partner for cooperation in seeking denuclearization and the establishment of enduring peace on the peninsula," Kim Han-kwon, a professor of the foreign ministry-affiliated Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said.

"Our government has entered a process of establishing its diplomatic principles, but what matters is public consensus, which will lessen the domestic political burden and enable the government to maintain policy consistency despite the great-power friction."


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