By Shim Jae-yun
As a managing editor of The Korea Times (2018-2020), I met with Chinese Ambassador to Korea Xing Haiming many times during various events. At that time, in a very casual atmosphere, we had candid conversations on various topics. I felt a friendliness toward him as he was well-acquainted with Korean affairs and, among others, seemed to harbor deep affection toward Korea and its people. Xing studied at a university in North Korea.
It was somewhat shocking to me when I heard Xing made a seemingly "reckless" remark that he should not have said during his meeting with main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) leader Rep. Lee Jae-myung.
First of all, Lee should not have taken such a humiliating low-key attitude of politicking to take advantage of Xing's status, regarding his attack against the Yoon Suk Yeol administration's move to approve Japan's bid to release contaminated water from Fukushima into the sea. Lee might have attempted to neutralize the ruling camp's offensives at his numerous apparent criminal acts surrounding land development and other corruption cases.
Making the most of Lee's visit, Xing fired salvos at Yoon and his administration for betting on the United States, warning of grave consequences. His statement triggered furious anger among most Koreans as it was totally improper and undiplomatic behavior for an envoy. It showed a pattern of notorious "warrior" diplomacy.
Such hostile diplomacy will only undermine the status and tarnish the image of China in the international community. Seemingly dominated by Xi Jinping's "heavy-handed" rule, the Chinese government has been failing to properly handle tectonic problems resulting from the lack of efforts to respect the principles of a market economy and democracy.
Regarding the reason for China's increasing reliance on warrior diplomacy, pundits say Beijing has been desperate as it has faced limitations in growth. As China has relied heftily on external debts paired with soaring real estate prices for growth, it now needs to cope with the steep rise in interest rates initiated by the U.S.
S&P Global slashed its forecast for China's economic growth to 5.2 percent for 2023, down from an earlier estimate of 5.5 percent. "China's economy loses more steam amid weak confidence among consumers and in the housing market," it said in a statement on Sunday.
Apparently judging time is on its side, the U.S. seems to have adopted "de-risking" as its tactic for dealing with China instead of its hitherto more radical "decoupling."
For starters, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing recently to meet with Chinese leaders, including Xi. Yet, China pretended to be hesitant, with Xi distancing Blinken during their meeting. Later, U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled an ulterior motive, describing Xi as a dictator.
Despite widespread expectations over China's "reopening" in the wake of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has largely failed to impress the world. Skepticism has been spreading that China would not be able to regain its high growth momentum.
China could be tempted to mobilize all possible means as seen in its recent attempts to "steal" state-of-the-art technologies from Korea for manufacturing semiconductors, the backbone of modern industries.
Unable to escape from the trap of a being a "developing country," "nervous" China will possibly seek other "extreme" measures, in bids to turn the eyes of domestic opponents to the outside. It can be seduced to wage a war, in the most extreme case, against, most probably, Taiwan.
As an adroit tactic in tackling incoming challenges, China would avoid facing off directly with its most formidable enemy ― the U.S. Instead, it will possibly attempt to flirt with relatively weak states including Korea. China may set Korea as a target again since Yoon has been eager to strengthen the alliance with the U.S. Yet China should bear in mind that Korea is no longer easy to deal with, having become a global pivotal state economically, militarily and culturally.
Once China tries to intimidate other countries by force, it may only weaken its stance, isolating itself further from the global community. I still trust Xing, and hope he will be able to make some sort of contribution to improve relations between Seoul and Beijing and possibly between the two Koreas. He seems to have made the remark at the instruction of the Chinese government, notwithstanding his own goodwill to Korea, a fate faced by most diplomats sent from authoritarian countries like China.
The author is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times.