Biden team's China focus puts spotlight on South Korea ahead of talks
October 21, 2021

Biden team’s China focus puts spotlight on South Korea ahead of talks

SEOUL (SOUTH KOREA) – The change in US administrations hasn’t made it an easier path for Seoul to strike a balance between its alliance with Washington and its economic reliance on China.

China has been in the forefront, with regard to the agenda of an Asia tour by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will make their arrival in South Korea on Wednesday for talks, hovering over core issues like the North Korea nuclear threat and strengthening the alliance.

The Americans’ message has been marshalling their Asian alliances to deal with potential “coercion and aggression” by Beijing.

President Moon Jae-in also needs to support both US President Joe Biden and the Chinese, for the possibility of achieving a breakthrough with Pyongyang in his final year in office.

John Delury, a China expert at South Korea’s Yonsei University, said, “When you frame the US-South Korea relationship in terms of those countries then there is a lot of disagreement and it’s hard to find common ground. So the emphasis on those issues in some of the messaging is not really finding common ground, but rather highlighting differences.”

South Korea has had reluctance to forge its longstanding alliance with the United States like anti-China. Moon’s administration has expressed doubts over discussions of officially teaming up with the United States, Australia, Japan and India, a gathering dubbed the “Quad”.

A senior foreign ministry official said Seoul was ready to work with the Quad as long as it was based on “openness, transparency and inclusiveness”.

“We will have in-depth discussions with the United States based on those principles and make a decision according to our national interests,” the official said.

The Moon government clearly stated that it will not be a part of an initiative that “excludes or contains a particular country,” meaning China, said Duyeon Kim, with the US-based Center for a New American Security.

“Unless the allies get very creative with nuances, it will be difficult to impossible to get this particular progressive South Korean government to join such democratic coalitions,” she said.

One diplomatic source familiar with their thinking said, “The Quad is indeed an effort to build a bulwark against China, and joining it would give Seoul more leverage in both driving Washington to restart talks with the North Koreans, and dealing with Beijing, though it would risk causing some discomfort in China relations as an immediate impact.”

Delury said that South Korea’s will to evade antagonising China while at the same time strengthening ties with the United States may be a reality check, which could be useful for American officials.

“South Korea’s desire to get along with both the US and China is shared pretty widely across the region,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s sustainable to push on a hawkish Indo-Pacific when that’s not what the Indo-Pacific wants.”

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