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US keeps China in check, China keeps US allies in check

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By Lee Seong-hyon

Cambridge, MA ― China's State Councilor Wang Yi is visiting South Korea this week. To be precise, it is one of the four countries he will be visiting (Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and South Korea). Among them, Vietnam and Singapore were visited by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris last month, while Cambodia and South Korea were visited by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in June and July, respectively.

The visit is seen as a move by China to trace the U.S.'s footprints to recheck the contours of the great diplomatic chess game between the eagle and the dragon. It's like Beijing trying to figure out what kind of strategy Washington has made with these countries against China.

In Vietnam, Wang said that China will "focus on the Asia-Pacific and East Asia" in terms of geopolitical importance and will "prevent an external force from impairing ASEAN's central role," in a thinly veiled reference to the United States.

Wang also underscored China's socialist market economy affinity with Vietnam, saying, "The two sides should stick to their shared ideals and beliefs so as to push forward their respective socialist cause," according to China's official Xinhua News Agency.

China's Global Times insisted that Wang's visit to the neighboring countries is not meant "to counter U.S. influence" in the region. The English-language newspaper, Global Times, is China's prime public opinion warfare tool.

China is well aware of its weaknesses compared to the United States. China does not have a wide network of allies and partners like the United States. Biden is trying to make the best use of it to keep China in check, while China is trying to neutralize The United States' efforts as much as possible.

Amid the intensifying competition and rivalry between the U.S. and China, China has divided the three major battlegrounds of that competition into regional groupings. The first is Europe, centered on NATO. The second is Southeast Asia, centered on ASEAN. The third region is Northeast Asia, centered on Japan and South Korea, the two military pact allies of the United States.

After U.S. President Joe Biden took office this year, the White House hosted its first "face-to-face summit" with Japan, followed by its first "no-mask summit" with South Korea a month later. By holding early back-to-back summits with its two Asian allies (even earlier than Biden's meetings with NATO leaders), Washington clearly showed its intention to utilize robustly its Asian alliance structure with Seoul and Tokyo to contain China.

In particular, Biden recently decided to "choose and focus" on competition with China by pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, even risking the domestic political fallout for the hasty exit process.

Moreover, since there is news that the U.S. government is considering including South Korea and Japan in the "Five Eyes," the exclusive club for top-secret intelligence sharing, China seems intrigued to, in my view, send Wang to inspect the situation in Seoul, including whether the Moon Jae-in administration wants to be a member of Washington's most exclusive fraternity.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, there are divergent discourses regarding the focus of Wang's visit and what his prime agenda might be. For instance, the Hankyoreh, a center-left daily, said that "South Korea-China bilateral relations will be the focus."

Since the Hankyoreh is resourceful in supporting the Moon administration's views, some pundits followed the "cue" and penned accordingly. Some say, for example, that Wang is visiting to "prepare for the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between South Korea and China" next year. Others say that Wang's mission is to coordinate "Xi Jinping's visit to South Korea," which the Moon administration has been trying to arrange for the past four years.

However, these views may be missing some of the bigger U.S.-China geopolitical contexts mentioned above and how they are motivating China's outreach to South Korea.

In Seoul, Wang is expected to push for deeper South Korea-China cooperation on the North Korean issue. However, China's prime goal will be to keep the U.S. sphere of influence in check. Wang can also emphasize China's "special influence" on North Korea to warn the Moon government not to get too close to the U.S.

Taken together, Wang's real purpose includes checking "the temperature" in South Korea regarding the Seoul-Washington alliance, particularly as the Biden administration has demonstrated its sustained strategic focus on China with the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the U.S. consideration of inviting South Korea to join the Five Eyes.


Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D. (sunnybbsfs@gmail.com), is a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. He is the former director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute.




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