(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 16)
One-man rule in China
Seoul needs more confident, consistent diplomacy
With a turnout of 99 percent and an approval rate of 100 percent the rubber-stamp National Congress of China elected Xi Jinping to another five-year presidency last Friday.
Xi became China's longest-serving head of state and the first leader in modern history to govern the country for a third term. Legally, he can remain in power for life.
There is little that is strange about this event in the communist giant that is China. Some foreign media call him "Emperor Xi," who wants to resurrect the glory of the nation's Middle Kingdom period harkening back to the Tang and Song dynasties. And South Korea is one of China's nearest neighbors, just an hour or two away by ferry.
So, it was natural for President Yoon Suk Yeol to send a congratulatory message to his Chinese counterpart on Monday. Yoon rightly expressed his hope of maintaining close communication with Xi and deepening exchanges and cooperation between the two countries. However, bilateral ties are now at their lowest for years.
South Koreans still remember how former President Moon Jae-in had to "eat alone" at a Beijing restaurant in 2017. Moon's spin doctor tried vainly to brush it aside, citing that former U.S. President Barack Obama also tried rice noodles at a small eatery in Ho Chi Minh City. Then Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also raised not a few eyebrows here, with his gesture to the foreign VIP of tapping him on the arm.
Moon, who direly needed Beijing's help to bolster the economy and solve the North Korean nuclear crisis, pretended he didn't mind much. Moon also had to restore a relationship soured by the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. In retaliation, Beijing banned Korean cultural products, like K-pop and K-drama. That was somewhat understandable, albeit out of character as a big country, given China's security concerns.
What's more challenging to understand is Beijing's more recent retaliatory move. The Chinese government excluded South Korea from the list of about 60 countries where Chinese people can go on group tours. That came even after Seoul completely lifted quarantine measures on Chinese visitors. It was the thinly veiled expression of Beijing's displeasure with Seoul's closer approaches to Washington and Tokyo in a three-nation alliance to deal with an increasingly belligerent North Korea ― and China. China's discomfort could be justified, but its reaction was not.
Especially so, considering Beijing's emphasis on the need to speed up exchanges between the two countries. Any country has the right to protect its people's health amid a pandemic. Moreover, Korea has a bad memory of the worsening COVID-19 situation by failing to block Chinese entrants in the early phase of the pandemic. The Yoon government made the right move at the right time. Imposing and lifting entry restrictions were both based on justifiable grounds, not prejudice. South Korea should continue to do so in all other areas. Confident and consistent diplomacy is needed to deal with the authoritarian neighbor.
The Yoon administration makes it no secret that it would side with the U.S. in the global hegemonic rivalry between the G2. The biggest reason, of course, is North Korea. However, Beijing's heavy-handed approach to Seoul plays no small part. China has long tried incorporating ancient Korean history into its own as part of its "Northeast Asian Project." Beijing must stop it. South Koreans' distrust and dyspathy of China peaked when Xi told former U.S. President Donald Trump that Korea was once part of the Chinese empire years ago. It was a glaring distortion of history. Korea paid a tribute but never was a Chinese province. It repelled all Chinese invasions.
Korea should neither rely too heavily on China economically and otherwise nor antagonize it in one-sided favor of the U.S. It has only to conduct predictable and sustainable diplomacy with the G2 while remaining ready to become flexible ― depending on how Beijing and Washington treat Seoul ― either independently or along with like-minded foreign partners.
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