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2017-11-19 17:05
Moon’s caution right so far

President Moon Jae-in called an emergency press meeting at the APEC summit last week in Danang, Vietnam, to clarify that Korea would not decide whether to back the “Indo-Pacific” vision propagated by U.S. President Donald Trump until the nation fully comprehends it.

Moon’s intervention quelled the controversy arising from his aides’ rebuttal of the term used in their post-summit joint press statement.

The President’s call for a wait-and-see stance was prudent for at least two reasons.

First, Korea has been kept in the dark about what appeared to be Trump’s Asia policy to replace his predecessor Obama’s Pivot to Asia, later renamed “Rebalance to Asia.”

The most obvious difference is that the Indo-Pacific is more “naked” than the pivot in its purpose of containing China. The concept dates back to the old Anglo Saxon concept of preventing the emergence of a rival and maintaining its regional control. But more recently, Japan’s Prime Minister Shizo Abe used it during his 2007 India visit. U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson mouthed “the free and open Indo-Pacific” in October ahead of his Indian trip. This vision brings together four countries most fearful of a bigger China _ Japan, India, Australia and the U.S. _ to create a united front.

Much of its future is up in the air. Most of all, it is unclear whether it is aimed at becoming an economic bloc, a security alliance or a combination of the two. Also, it is a tossup concerning the evolution of its plotted path. One is replacing the current U.S.-Korea-Japan format that serves the dual purpose of keeping China and its client state, North Korea, at bay. Another is a reorganization by “recruiting” South Korea and Vietnam as junior partners around the four main pillar states.

Second, Korea has not reset its priorities as of yet.

True, its immediate priority is to ensure peace on the Korean Peninsula through the denuclearization of the North. That depends on a strong ROK-U.S. alliance.

That doesn’t mean Korea can afford to ignore China’s rising power. Not heeding it _ deploying a U.S. missile interceptor on the Korean soil despite China’s vehement opposition _ cost Seoul tens of billions of dollars. Chinese leader Xi Jinping called on Moon to bear the historic responsibility, however Beijing intends not to do so. China relented only after Seoul openly declared that it would neither deploy any more Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense batteries nor join the U.S.-led Missile Defense (MD) initiative; it would back no Korea-U.S.-Japan alliance. Humiliating as this may sound, Seoul’s concessions reflect a changing order in the region.

Finally, Korea should be patient in seeing how the Indo-Pacific vision will coalesce into a policy or miscarry before making a commitment. As things stand, it is inevitable China’s influence will increase at the expense of the U.S. That may give Moon or his successor an opportunity to become a “balancer” of power in the region _ a goal that was propagated by the late President Roh Moo-hyun and recently denied by Moon, Roh’s political partner.

                                    

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