Not only has Biden refused to withdraw the retaliatory tariffs slapped by his predecessor on Chinese imports, but he is doubling down on Washington's offensive against Beijing in economic and technological areas.
However, China is no longer what it was, simply swallowing America's admonition, like it or not. As shown by the tough war of words between the two countries' top diplomats in Anchorage three weeks ago. Alas, China is willing to push back on any issue, including even political institutions or value systems.
Political gurus warn against hastily defining the U.S.-Chinese rivalry as the "Second Cold War," by comparing it to the First Cold War between the U.S. and the former USSR. They point out that the ongoing competition is not between two hostile blocs, but between countries, and that their fight is not about military buildup, but about setting global standards.
Whatever one names it, however, the U.S.-Chinese tug-of-war over global domination is likely to get fiercer and last longer than the original Cold War. Few countries on this planet might feel more embarrassed ― and endangered ― by the escalating Sino-American tensions than South Korea, because this divided peninsula is still the collision point of the two superpowers' interests as it was some seven decades ago.
"The moment has come, again, for Seoul to make a choice," one right-wing Korean newspaper said in a recent editorial. "We can no longer depend on the U.S. for national security while relying on China for economic growth," wrote another. These pro-American, anti-communist media outlets urge the Moon Jae-in administration to pronounce its support for the U.S. unequivocally. If Seoul keeps trying to curry the favor of both Washington and Beijing, it will end up satisfying no one and be discarded by both, they claim.
For South Korea, the U.S. is its only ally, and China is both its strategic partner and its biggest trading partner, with its import and export volumes surpassing those of America and Japan combined. The nation has only to deal with each country as such. South Korea is the world's 10th largest economy, a global IT leader, and the world's sixth largest military power. It is no longer a kindergartener forced to take one side against his or her wishes.
South Korea should act at least like a university student who, armed with sound ideas and model behavior, can point out the problems of grown-ups and rectify them. If it can form a group with other youngsters and change the old order, it will be better. South Korea needs to create solidarity with other middle powers based on universally plausible and irrefutable principles.
To do so, the country must change itself first by taking the lead on global issues, such as the climate and human rights crises. Seoul should shed its disgraceful image as a climate villain and urge Pyongyang to improve its human rights situation, instead of avoiding the issue under the pretext of geopolitical peculiarity.
Seoul should be able to take sides with Washington or Beijing, depending on the issue. For example, it should make its voice heard against China's possible attempt to dominate the South China Sea ― or the "Northeastern Project" ― which distorts historical and cultural facts, ranging from food to clothing.
Likewise, South Korea ought to resist excessive economic and military demands from the U.S. if, for instance, Washington seeks to install additional missile bases here or force Korean companies to join the China boycott.
Based on its distinct identity and self-esteem, South Korea should take an independent diplomatic approach, putting its national interests ahead of all else.
I do not like, much less respect, the two former presidents now behind bars ― Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye ― because of the acts of corruption they committed while in office. However, each made one memorable diplomatic move.
Lee visited Dok-do, the volcanic outcroppings in the East Sea and the source of a territorial dispute with Japan, in 2012. Most, if not all, diplomatic experts here still accuse Lee of aggravating bilateral relationships beyond repair. I am no diplomatic guru, but I think that was the only good move Lee made as a national leader, politically motivated or not. Japan deserves far worse.
Likewise, Park became the target of criticism ― especially among pro-U.S. critics ― for standing on a Tiananmen Square reviewing stand in 2015 side by side with Chinese and Russian leaders. Transcending ideological differences, it was a good balancing act. The conservative leader practiced what her progressive predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, preached.
Joe Biden, despite his better response to the COVID-19 pandemic and more humanitarian immigration policy, has made it clear that he will not let China become the world's most powerful country while in office. That means he will use all means to curb the latter's ascent, bringing more turbulence to the planet at the expense of competition, in good faith if necessary.
If the new Cold War is over economy and technology, South Korea does not need to be anxious to take sides, but rather, it should bide its time and make the best decisions amidst the changing circumstances.
The nation should chart its own diplomatic course, and nothing but national interests should be its yardstick. Hindering them is a lack of diplomatic imagination, self-confidence, and internal strife that uses even foreign policy for shortsighted ideological one-upmanship.
Choi Sung-jin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Korea Times columnist.