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[INTERVIEW] Yoon's efforts to bolster Korea-US alliance will inevitably disturb China

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Ex-vice foreign minister says Korea needs to engage actively in US-led Indo-Pacific initiative

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Former vice foreign minister Shin Kak-soo / Korea Times file
Former vice foreign minister Shin Kak-soo / Korea Times file
Chinese leader Xi Jinping's recent invitation for a summit with President Yoon Suk-yeol has created a rare tension between the two countries about a venue: the two leaders insisted their counterparts visit their respective capitals to have a summit.

Through the Chinese delegation represented by Vice President Wang Qishan, who visited Seoul on the occasion of Yoon's inauguration ceremony on May 10, Xi proposed that Yoon visit China to have their first summit at a mutually convenient time.

Politely expressing his gratitude to the Chinese leader for the "kind offer," Yoon, however, responded that he looks forward to seeing the Chinese leader in Seoul, without mentioning anything about plans to travel to China.

There have been no follow-up developments about the South Korea-China summit, as neither side showed any signs of making a concession from their initial offers.

"Generally speaking, summits are held in a reciprocal way," Shin Kak-soo, a former vice foreign minister who later served as South Korea's ambassador to Japan during the Lee Myung-bak administration, said during a recent Korea Times interview. "Former President Moon Jae-in paid a visit to China twice, first in 2017 and later in 2019, during his tenure, but Chinese President Xi has not made a reciprocal visit to South Korea since. Therefore, this time, the Chinese leader is supposed to visit Seoul, if he and President Yoon hold a summit. President Yoon's offer to hold a summit in Seoul, instead of Beijing, came against this backdrop."

Xi last visited Korea back in July 2014 when former President Park Geun-hye was in office. There has been no Korea-China summit held in Seoul since. Those who are familiar with diplomatic customs view Xi's offer this time to hold summit in China again as being inappropriate.

Shin said that a Korea-China summit in person seems to be unfeasible, at least within this year, partly because the difference between Yoon and Xi over the summit venue has not been resolved.

He said there is another domestic issue that makes it difficult for the Chinese leader to travel abroad this year.

"Xi is seeking a third term and whether he will be able to succeed in extending his presidency for one more term will be determined at the Chinese Communist Party's congress to be held in October," he said.

On top of this, Xi is dealing with another daunting issue: the worsening Chinese economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to China's economy and some 400 million people in 45 cities in China are currently under COVID-19 lockdown.

This has prompted speculation of another possible venue for the meeting.

"Word of an online South Korea-China summit has begun to emerge as their chances to meet in person within this year have become dim. I think holding an online summit is a realistic option that can help the two leaders manage bilateral relations," said Shin.

The subtle tug of war over where the summit should be held is a microcosm of how South Korea would react to China under Yoon's leadership when thorny bilateral issues flare up. During his presidential campaign, Yoon reiterated that South Korea is China's equal partner and thus, that their bilateral relations should be handled accordingly.

President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, greets lawmakers after delivering a speech seeking bipartisan support for the passage of the budget at the National Assembly on Monday. Yonhap
President Yoon Suk-yeol, right, greets lawmakers after delivering a speech seeking bipartisan support for the passage of the budget at the National Assembly on Monday. Yonhap

Shin said South Korea's diplomatic friction with China will be inevitable for the time being as Yoon seeks to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance amid the heightened U.S.-China rivalry.

At a time when the two global powers are clashing over practically every issue, not to mention North Korea, South Korea's efforts to improve ties with one could send a message to the other that their partner is trying to distance itself.

Despite this situation, Shin said the Yoon government should continue efforts to bolster South Korea-U.S. relations and find ways to join the U.S.-led coalition to make the Indo-Pacific region free and open. He said that the Moon Jae-in government missed this opportunity.

"South Korea should have been actively participating in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific initiative as the region holds the key to our peace and prosperity. We should have participated in the TPP and Quad and become a member of the coalition to construct a free and open Indo-Pacific region. But we didn't because the previous government was overly cautious about China's possible negative reactions, and as a result our vital interest was sacrificed," he said.

A shift is in the making in South Korea's diplomacy since Yoon took office, as he is redefining what the country's diplomacy is about.

Yoon introduced economic security as a core component in the pursuit of South Korea's diplomacy, particularly with the United States. At the heart of it lies the expansion of the South Korea-U.S. alliance from the previous security-oriented partnership to a comprehensive one based on the mutual interests of the two countries.

"Amid a U.S.-China rivalry that has intensified after the rise of China, economic security and technology have become two vital components of national security," said Shin. "South Korea is the world's fifth-largest manufacturer and has considerable capabilities in strategic goods, such as semiconductors, batteries and medicine. There is a lot South Korea and the United States can cooperate on, as their economies complement each other."

The rationale behind economic security as national security is that a country can manipulate resources, technology or other expertise of its own to maximize its interests, although doing so will sometimes come at the expense of other nations. That could end up distorting the global supply chain.

Peter Navarro, a U.S. economist who served in the Donald Trump administration as director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, gave an example of why economic security matters in this changing world.

"If you have a single source making something that's in danger, a fragile market, if you have labor shortages associated with that because you don't have the skills at the trade level or at the STEM level, or if you're dependent on foreigners for that, that would be a vulnerability," he said in November 2018 in a policy discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "These vulnerabilities are not random in some cases. They are the direct effect of strategic rivals, principally China, targeting somewhere in our supply chain or some sector and basically making that vulnerability either existing or worse."

Yoon said economic security will be one of the main agenda items he and U.S. President Joe Biden will discuss during their summit slated for Saturday.

"President Biden and I will discuss ways to cooperate to secure global supply chains thorough the Indo-Pacific Economic Platform (IPEF). Other economic security issues we will discuss include the digital economy, carbon neutrality and other related matters," he said in a speech to the National Assembly on Monday.

Kang Hyun-kyung

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