By Yi Whan-woo
Korea's diplomatic policy of strategic ambiguity toward the U.S.-China row is being called into question in terms of its effectiveness, with the conflict between the two world powers increasingly expanding from the economic sphere to the security arena.
The strategy, according to analysts, is based on the premise of not antagonizing China so that Korea can secure benefits from both Beijing and Washington ― relying on the former for trade and the latter for its security interests.
But an increasing number of cases in what started as a trade row now involve security and economic issues at the same time, ranging from the Huawei ban and the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) initiative to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, all measures taken by Washington against Beijing.
"And this is forcing Korea to make its stance clear and choose between the U.S. and China in every case of a conflict scenario," said Park Won-gon, an international relations professor at Handong Global University.
He referred to the U.S. urging LG Uplus, July 22, to switch to "trusted vendors."
LG Uplus is the only major Korean telecom operator using equipment from Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei, which the U.S. has accused of stealing technology and is pressing its allies to shun.
In what is seen as a countermeasure to the Huawei sanctions, China warned Samsung and SK hyix, among other major international technology companies, in June that they could face "dire consequences" if they cooperate with the U.S. ban on sales of key American technology to Chinese companies.
The U.S. has asked Korea to join the EPN, an envisioned alliance of "trusted partners" to remove global industrial supply chains from China amid the intensifying trade war.
President Trump signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, July 14, to impose sanctions on China in response to its interference with Hong Kong's autonomy.
The law came after 27 countries issued a joint statement July 1 against China imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, which they said "undermines" the city's freedom.
Korea has not joined the 27, after Chinese Ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming said he believed in "winning understanding and support from the Korean side" over the security law.
"Under the Trump administration, the row with China is getting complicated as it spans many areas at the same time," said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA). "This is making it difficult for Korea to seek U.S. understanding when it comes to conflicts of economic interests between Washington and Beijing."
Among other U.S.-China conflicts that Korea may be forced to choose sides on are the U.S.-led Indo Pacific Alliance and China's territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
What can be Korea's new strategy?
In a meeting to come up with measures to deal with the U.S.-China dispute, July 28, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha proposed a set of principles in four areas: security, the economy, science and technology, and values and norms.
Regarding security, she called for expanding Seoul's constructive role in strengthening regional stability through its alliance with Washington.
For the economy-related sector, she said the government should enhance its principles of fairness, reciprocity, transparency and inclusiveness.
In science and technology, Kang said the administration will work to strengthen technological security.
"Even a little frictions can escalate into a fierce conflict. It is appearing more difficult to find the middle ground and seek cooperation," she said. "Holding our balance and harmonizing various and often contradicting elements is vital under these changing circumstances."
Professor Park said he agrees with upholding fairness, reciprocity, transparency and inclusiveness, adding "these are basic values shared by the international community."
Park, however, noted pursuing such "universal" values would not guarantee amicable relations with both the U.S. and China.
He argued the Trump administration has been pursuing trade protectionism and shunning multilateralism.
On Korea-China relations, Park pointed to Beijing's economic retaliation against Seoul for the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system here.
"None of these are in accordance with international norms and we have to be ready to suffer disadvantages for not standing with either the U.S. or China when they act against internationally-accepted values," Park said.
The professor added it was important to draw a public consensus when Korea is being forced to choose a side between the U.S. and China.
"For instance, I would say the social divide over whether the THAAD deployment was appropriate gave China confidence that we can't fight back as one against retaliatory measures on Korean businesses," Park said.
Professor Kim thinks Korea should still stick to strategic ambiguity while "saving the moment of making a choice between the U.S. and China till the last moment."
"I find it risky to say Korea should make its stance clear in every case involving the U.S.-China dispute," he said, adding the country, unlike Europe and Australia that side with the U.S., is "in a geopolitically disadvantageous position."
"Given this situation, we should make a choice only when necessary."
Kim brought up the THAAD dispute and argued "receiving assurances" for a choice in favor of either the U.S. or China would be critical.
The U.S. was seen as disinterested in assisting Korea against China's "bullying" over the THAAD deployment, he noted.