Prudence advised in Seoul’s stance on Taiwan Strait issues
By Nam Hyun-woo
The outcome of the presidential election in Taiwan is expected to pose significant diplomatic challenges for Korea, particularly in navigating relations with China and neighboring countries. Tensions in Asia could escalate in response to any sensitive rhetoric or actions, adding complexity to Korea’s diplomatic landscape.
In Saturday’s presidential election, Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, known for his U.S.-friendly stance, secured victory by garnering 40.05 percent of the total ballots. He outpaced Hou Yu-ih from the China-friendly opposition Kuomintang.
Viewed widely as a proxy battle between the U.S. and China, Lai’s campaign emphasizing self-determination, social justice, and resistance to China’s threats resonated with Taiwanese voters, earning their trust even in the face of increasing pressure from Beijing.
China’s foreign ministry promptly issued a statement following Lai’s election win asserting Beijing’s “One China” policy.
“Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change,” it said. “The Chinese government’s position of upholding the one-China principle and opposing ‘Taiwan independence’ separatism, ‘two Chinas’ and ‘one China, one Taiwan’ will not change,” it added.
The election result is anticipated to have an impact on Korea as well.
The Yoon Suk Yeol administration has displayed a strong inclination towards the U.S., as the president stated in previous media interviews that Seoul opposes attempts to alter the status quo by force in reference to tensions in the Taiwan Strait, despite China’s displeasure. Simultaneously, Korea maintains its adherence to Beijing’s “One China” policy, refraining from reinstating diplomatic ties with Taiwan that were severed in 1992 when Seoul established diplomatic relations with Beijing.
An official at Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “We hope for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and peaceful progress in China-Taiwan relations,” adding that the Korean government’s stance on Taiwan has not changed, while Seoul hopes for practical cooperation with Taiwan in various fields.
Seoul’s presidential office is viewing the election outcome as a very sensitive matter, but an official noted that the vote result “will not affect the basic direction of the relations between Korea and China.”
Experts urged the Korean government to approach the issue with prudence as tensions are expected to rise in the Taiwan Strait.
“Keeping a prudent stance is the best option for Korea in this volatile situation, because tensions are set to rise in the region,” said Kim Heung-kyu, director of the U.S.-China Policy Institute at Ajou University. “China will maintain its hardline stance on Taiwan, while chances seem higher for the U.S. Republican Party, which takes a more hawkish stance toward China, to win in the upcoming U.S. elections.”
The Taiwan Strait serves as a crucial shipping route for Korean businesses, with over 40 percent of the country’s total shipping volume passing through it. Escalating tensions in the region are likely to increase oil prices and other energy costs, posing a significant burden on the Korean economy, which relies heavily on imported energy.
Also, Taiwan is Korea’s sixth-largest trading partner, whose trading volume amounted to $40.46 billion as of November last year. Moreover, the two countries are important partners in the global semiconductor industry.
“China is likely to scrutinize every comment made by President Yoon, and this sensitivity could impact the two countries’ relations, particularly in the economic domain,” Kim noted. “There’s a possibility of maritime disputes between Korea and China, and in the air, Chinese military aircraft may enter Korea’s air defense identification zone without prior notice.”
The lingering question is whether the U.S. will encourage its allies, including Korea, to join its efforts to exert pressure on China, similar to the situation seen during the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
Last year, Yoon slammed Russia’s “illegal invasion” of Ukraine on multiple international diplomatic stages and Korea has been providing non-lethal military aid to Kyiv. Although the Korean government denies it, Seoul is widely believed to be replenishing the U.S. military’s ammunition inventory, which has been drained due to the war in Ukraine.
Kim said chances are slim for the U.S. to urge Seoul to show a more aggressive stance on China in the near future, given that the Biden administration is seeking to manage its level of competition with Beijing.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his victory, saying, “We also congratulate the Taiwan people for once again demonstrating the strength of their robust democratic system and electoral process.”
The U.S. plans to send an unofficial delegation made up of former senior officials to celebrate Lai’s election victory.
However, when asked by reporters to comment on the election results in Taiwan, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “We do not support independence.”
The moves are perceived as part of the Biden administration’s strategy to navigate its relationship with Beijing. The administration aims to champion the triumph of democracy over autocracy without outright challenging China’s authority.
“Chances are very slim for the U.S. to urge Korea or other allies to show gestures pressing China, because this is a highly sensitive situation, and countries may choose not to join the U.S. campaign because many of them formed ties with China after acknowledging the ‘One China’ principle,” Kim said.
Against this backdrop, the Korean government is seeking to resume a trilateral summit involving Japan and China as soon as possible. During a National Assembly confirmation hearing, Seoul’s new Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul pledged to hold the summit as early as possible.