Taking China’s hands – The Korea Times

Bomi Yoon

How to handle a giant too important to avoid

President Yoon Suk Yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are undoubtedly the closest Korean and Japanese leaders in history.

The duo showed off their bromance again at the APEC summit in San Francisco last week. Yoon said Kishida is his “closest friend in the international community.” Kishida reciprocated, saying, “We commonly love good food and drink.” The two also attended the summit discussion at Standford University together.

In contrast, Yoon and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, exchanged pleasantries for three minutes. Officials attempted to arrange a separate summit between the two leaders but failed.

That might not have been due entirely to a lack of time.

For the past year and a half, the Yoon administration has moved away from China at the same pace that it approached the U.S. and Japan. It’s also been some time since China replaced Japan as the least likable country among young Koreans. They dislike China’s arrogance and heavy-handedness.

Despite the ever-tightening alliance of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, there is a big difference between them. Unlike Seoul, Washington and Tokyo try to maintain close ties with Beijing. So do Germany and France, attempting to separate the economy from politics. South Korea may be the only major country not hedging its position between America and China. Such a binary diplomacy is neither reasonable nor pragmatic.

Especially considering China’s lingering influence on South Korea’s economy and inter-Korean relations. China still accounts for nearly a quarter of South Korea’s foreign trade, although the South’s share of the giant neighbor’s trade has dropped to 5 percent. North Korea’s rapid approach to Russia makes Pyongyang’s ties with Beijing look relatively tepid. Whether North Korea likes it or not, however, Beijing will remain the most influential ally for Pyongyang, like Washington is for Seoul.

After a phase of mutual estrangement, Seoul and Beijing seek to restore ties. It is regrettable that such efforts come after, not before, the détente between the U.S. and China. If Seoul had taken the initiative, it might have shed the stigma of being dependent on America.

The U.S. and China – or their incumbent presidents — need each other. Joe Biden seeks Xi’s help in trade and the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East for reelection. Xi, reeling from a property crisis, falling demand for Chinese products, and high unemployment, wants Biden to loosen the economic noose on China.

Biden and Xi agreed that if one calls, the other answers. Their militaries will also reconnect severed lines to prevent accidental clashes. However, the G2 will maintain a hegemonic battle to draw other nations to their sides. America and Western Europe are on one side, China and Russia on the other, and the “Global South” — middle powers formerly called the nonaligned group — between them in this multipolar world.

It is against this backdrop that China reaches out to South Korea. Seoul should take that hand. The question is how best to hold it. That is hardly an easy job. Seoul can’t be too far away from Beijing, but not too close to it, either.

Past experiences suggest much. Former President Park Geun-hye was an enigma for Beijing. In September 2015, Park became the only leader of the U.S. allies who inspected the Chinese military at Tiananmen Gate. The following year, she earned Beijing’s ire by deploying a U.S. missile defense system that also could target China. Park’s successor, Moon Jae-in, endured humiliation to restore ties with Beijing, but to no avail.

All this shows South Korea should be more consistent, self-reliant, and flexible in relations with China — and North Korea, too, for that matter. Seoul must not let differences with them get structural, complicated, and ideological. Values and principles are important, but must not be all.

Only when South Korea acts independently, not becoming subordinate to others, can the nation expect partners to respect its voices and interests.

The ongoing détente between Washington and Beijing is an opportunity and test for Seoul. The Yoon administration must deal with China not only squarely, but also skillfully.

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