By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, May 12 (Yonhap) -- President Joe Biden's drive for a U.S.-led strategic economic initiative, widely viewed as intended to counter China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region, is posing a tricky diplomatic test to the new South Korean administration, experts here say.
Biden is expected to declare the launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) just before or during his trip to Northeast Asia later this month, according to some news reports. He is scheduled to arrive in South Korea next Friday for summit talks with President Yoon Suk-yeol, who was inaugurated earlier this week, followed by a visit to Japan on his first regional swing as president.
The conservative Yoon administration is "positively" considering whether to join the initiative, a Seoul official said. But its anti-Chinese undertones are raising worries that Seoul's participation would take a toll on bilateral relations with Beijing.
"China would, of course, view South Korea's move to join the IPEF as a step into the anti-China front," Kim Heung-kyu, the head of the U.S.-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, said. "The Yoon government's biggest diplomatic challenge may, after all, come from its ties with China, and the burning question is whether it has any diplomatic plan under its sleeve."
The IPEF is aimed at deepening engagement with America's partner countries in the Indo-Pacific region, now a fulcrum of global wealth and power, on digital trade, supply chain resilience, infrastructure, green technology, tax and anti-corruption, according to U.S. officials.
Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. Koji Tomita told a forum earlier this week that he expects the formal launch of the IPEF to coincide with Biden's trip to Japan this month, according to Kyodo News. Biden is set to visit Seoul from May 20-22 for talks with Yoon, followed by a trip to Tokyo from May 22-24.
Biden's push for the IPEF came as China is seeking to expand its economic clout through various platforms, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a 15-member free trade deal where the United States is absent.
China is also eying the membership of the 11-member Comprehensive Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) -- the successor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) from which the U.S. withdrew in 2017 under former President Donald Trump.
Against this backdrop, Biden remains keen on launching the regional framework that dovetails with his "America is back" mantra and helps allay concerns that China is filling the void left by Trump's inward-looking "America first" credo, analysts said.
The IPEF mirrors the Economic Prosperity Network initiative that the Trump administration promoted in what was seen as an effort to break China's dominance in global supply chains that figured prominently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given Yoon's avowed commitment to broadening the alliance and enhancing "economic security," his government is expected to seek IPEF membership from early on to be part of the initial members involved in its rule-setting process, observers said.
"The South Korean government has thus far maintained the position that it can join a regional forum that is open, inclusive and transparent," a Seoul official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "In this respect, the government is positively considering the participation in the IPEF."
Should South Korea join the U.S.-led initiative, the allies' cooperation in securing supply chains for semiconductors, high-capacity batteries and other crucial industrial commodities could pick up pace, with their economic reliance on China likely to dwindle.
But it could eventually dawn on Seoul that geopolitical repercussions could be greater than thought. China remains South Korea's crucial partner for trade and its elusive goal of lasting peace with North Korea.
During his courtesy call on Yoon on Tuesday, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan took note of the "mutually complementary" nature of the South Korean and Chinese economies and stressed that the two countries' industrial supply chains can hardly be separated.
Wang's remarks were seen as an oblique request for Seoul to refrain from joining Washington's move to reshape global supply chains away from China.
Seoul's participation in the IPEF, if realized, would signal an apparent shift in its foreign policy approach that has been marked by "strategic ambiguity" over an intensifying Sino-U.S. competition, analysts said.
"(Joining the IPEF) would be like South Korea making a choice (between the major powers)," professor Kim said.
Even if the IPEF is launched, uncertainty still abounds over its membership makeup and to what extent each member can abide by its tough rules and standards, Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.
"For instance, some Southeast Asian nations have state-led economic practices that may be out of tune with the IPEF," the professor said.
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