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Korea's US-China dilemma deepening under Biden era

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Seoul advised to use multilateral approach toward Beijing

By Kang Seung-woo

As competition will continue to be a defining feature of U.S.-China relations under the incoming Joe Biden administration, China is expected to roll its sleeves up in its attempts to pull Korea away from its alliance with the U.S.

Given that President-elect Biden will pursue stronger security cooperation with traditional allies, including Korea, in thwarting moves by China, the plan is leaving the Korean government scrambling to seek measures to avoid possible diplomatic friction with Beijing. Korea is still suffering from China's economic retaliation for its approval of the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile shield on the Korean Peninsula.

In that respect, diplomatic experts advised Seoul to use its ties with other partners, or multilateral structures, to keep its relations with Beijing intact.

However, the pundits also predicted that China is not likely to repeat retaliatory measures if Korea fails to live up to its expectations.

In response to the hegemonic competition, the government has maintained a so-called "strategic ambiguity" thus far as the U.S. is Korea's long-time security ally, while China is its top trading partner. But there is a consensus that the balancing act may lose traction after Biden takes office in January, as Washington's anti-China stance is expected to remain largely unchanged.

Amid such speculation, Beijing has already stepped up efforts to micromanage its ties with Korea, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting here and boasting of the robustness and vitality of the two countries' relations.

"I think that it makes sense for Seoul to continue to do what it has been doing in recent months and years … Participate in multilateral initiatives involving the U.S. that don't directly challenge China but that address its rise, such as Quad Plus or the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting with its partners, and strengthen links with partners that also don't see the need to choose between China and the U.S., such as ASEAN countries, the European Union, or Canada and New Zealand," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor in International Relations at King's College London.

Naval War College professor Terence Roehrig also said, "While the Chinese economy remains important for South Korean trade and investment, wariness in Korea over China's heavy-handed actions and strategic direction continues to grow.

"Indeed, Korean efforts to build greater economic ties with India and Southeast Asia demonstrate a strategy to diversify and reduce dependence on China," he added.

They also concurred that Korea needs to make use of the alliance with the U.S. in the interests of security as well.

"Despite the turbulence of the past few years in alliance relations, the U.S. remains a crucial political and security partner for Korea. Moreover, both countries share common political values and a commitment to the current economic order," Roehrig said.

Kim Han-kwon, a professor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said the government needs deft maneuvering in its economic cooperation with China to avoid irking the U.S.

"As the U.S. government is anticipated to pursue de-Sinicization, or eliminating Chinese influence, in some industrial fields, Korea needs to find areas where economic cooperation with China is available and intensify its partnerships in a well-calculated manner for its economic interests," Kim said.

"However, it is a daunting task for Korea to seek economic cooperation, while risking a diplomatic rift with the U.S., so we need well-advised strategies."

In response to the deployment of a U.S. terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) battery here, the Chinese government imposed a de facto ban on overseas group tours to Korea and Korean content on Chinese screens.

"I think China won't retaliate against Korea unless Seoul engages in an action that Beijing thinks is directly against its interests. THAAD was an example of this. Australia's decision to call for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is another example," said Pacheco Pardo.

"I'm not saying that China's reaction is justified in these and similar cases, but that's what Beijing has done. However, if Korea doesn't directly challenge China, I don't think that Beijing will retaliate."

Kim expressed a similar view.

"As the Sino-U.S. rivalry is likely to intensify in the Biden presidency, China would not want to see its diplomatic dispute with neighboring countries escalating. In that sense, Beijing is expected to opt for a diplomatic policy of improving relations and seeking cooperation with them rather than heavy-handed measures," he said.

Roehrig said China would be delighted to pull Korea away from its alliance with the U.S. and harsh retaliation would be counterproductive to that goal.

"The Chinese government will definitely be willing to retaliate against Korea but there are risks if China overplays its hand," he said.

Kang Seung-woo


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