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Korea faces growing pressure to join stand against China

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield / AP-Yonhap
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield / AP-Yonhap

By Kang Seung-woo

Pressure appears to be mounting on Korea coalescing around the so-called democracies' movement to isolate China.

The U.S.'s Biden administration has sent and will send its senior officials to Seoul, while Britain has also invited Korea to next month's G7 foreign ministers' meeting, in which China is expected to top the agenda in the face of Beijing's increasing assertiveness.

At first glance, the longtime allies are seemingly engaged in boosting bilateral cooperation across the board, but many believe that the United States is once again urging Korea to choose Washington in its unfolding superpower rivalry with Beijing.

Korea is one of the two key Asian allies of the U.S., but it is also regarded as the weakest link among the Washington-Seoul-Tokyo security structure to contain China because Beijing is Korea's largest trading partner.

According to diplomatic sources, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield will visit here next month to participate in the so-called U.N. Peacekeeping Ministerial, slated to take place in Seoul from Dec. 7 to Dec. 8, on behalf of State Secretary Antony Blinken. She would be the third minister-level official from the Biden administration, following Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Blinken, who traveled here together in March.

While in Seoul, Thomas-Greenfield is also expected to hold meetings with senior officials from the foreign ministry, during which the China issue may be on the agenda.

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January, veteran diplomat Thomas-Greenfield called China a "strategic adversary."

"Their actions threaten our security, they threaten our values and they threaten our way of life, and they are a threat to their neighbors and they are a threat across the globe," she said at the time.

Ahead of the planned U.N. ambassador's visit, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Kritenbrink and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai visited here earlier this month.

Kritenbrink, a China expert, made a three-day trip to Korea, Nov. 10, and held meetings with senior officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, as well as Deputy Minister for Economic Affairs Lee Seong-ho under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, the American diplomat also met with senior officials of local major business groups.

Kritenbrink's itinerary raised speculation that he may have explained Washington's push to rally allies to establish supply chains that exclude China ― a top priority of the Biden administration as part of its efforts to curb Beijing's global influence.

Tai arrived in Seoul last week, and agreed with Trade Minister Yeo Han-koo to establish new dialogue channels to enhance cooperation on supply chains and other trade issues of mutual concern.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai speaks during a meeting with local business leaders in Seoul, Saturday. Yonhap
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai speaks during a meeting with local business leaders in Seoul, Saturday. Yonhap

In addition, she told a radio interview that the U.S.'s recent restriction on Korean chipmaker SK hynix's plan to bring advanced equipment to a Chinese factory was made out of legitimate concerns that there could be risks to national security, in terms of where this technology ends up.

Korea ― along with Australia, India, South Africa and countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ― has been invited to the G7 foreign ministers' meeting, scheduled for next month in Liverpool.

The Chinese government has seen the expansion of the G7 as an attempt to curb its global influence.

"I want us to build a worldwide network of liberty that advances freedom, democracy and enterprise and encourages like-minded countries to work together from a position of strength," British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said, raising expectations that they will discuss China's increasing clout.

The foreign ministers are expected to discuss economic resilience after the coronavirus pandemic, human rights and China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

"While surely Team Biden wants the Moon Jae-in government to be a more active part of what is clearly a growing anti-China coalition, it seems unlikely the Blue House will cave to any pressure," said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. "The Blue House" is the English term for Cheong Wa Dae, the Korean presidential office.

Kazianis continued, "Korea must continue its difficult balancing act, trying to juggle emerging economic ties with China and a much-needed security alliance with America. That won't be easy, but it has been something President Moon thus far has excelled at."


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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