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News, June 2020
China-South Korea Ties Face a Testing Time After Seoul Acceptance of Donald Trump's G7 Invitation
SCMP, June 5, 2020
China-South Korea ties face a testing time after Seoul accepts Donald Trump’s G7 invitation
Accepting invitation to expanded G7 meeting may put trade on the line but Seoul must factor in other challenges in its relationship with Beijing Timing of meeting just before US presidential election has implications for nations in talks with Trump
By Eduardo Baptista
SCMP, 5 June, 2020
South Korean President Moon Jae-in accepted Donald Trump’s offer to join an expanded G7. Photo: Bloomberg South Korea was given a painful lesson in 2016 about how China could economically punish a country acting in a way that displeased Beijing. Is President Moon Jae-in about to get lesson number two?
South Korea is one of three countries to accept an invitation from United States President Donald Trump to join an expanded meeting of Group of 7 advanced economies later this year. The gathering is widely viewed as the US leader's attempt to form a broader alliance against China, which is not invited.
“To Chinese policymakers, President Trump’s invitation to South Korea is a reminder that Seoul is an important member of a US-centred international order, especially in the context of the US-China competition for global influence,” said Ji-Young Lee, Korea policy chair at Rand Corporation, a US non-profit think tank.
While Seoul has a military alliance with the US, China is its biggest economic partner, with trade totalling US$244.3 billion in 2019. Two other countries that have accepted Trump’s invitation to the G7 meeting – India and Australia – also do a lot of business with China. But Moon’s challenge is not just economic, it is also nuclear and related to North Korea.
China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, recording US$244.3 billion in business in 2019. Photo: Reuters
“Out of the three countries that accepted Trump’s invitation to join an expanded G7, South Korea is in the most uncomfortable position,” said Qi Huaigao, vice-director of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies in Shanghai.
China’s support was essential to Moon’s conciliatory North Korea policy, he said. This meant Seoul could participate in the meeting but “it cannot make promises to the US that affect security in the Korean peninsula, like installing intermediate-range missiles”, he said.
The Chinese foreign ministry has not directly addressed Moon’s acceptance of Trump’s G7 invitation, but it has hit back at what it characterised as an attempt by the US to strengthen relations with China’s regional partners.
“Encirclement targeted at China lacks support, and it does not serve the interests of the countries involved,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday.
Qi said it was only natural that Chinese policymakers would be concerned about the Trump initiative.
“China will look at this problem through the lens of US-China conflict: South Korea, Australia, India are all US allies so that’s a problem for Beijing,” he said, adding that there were signs Trump was bending G7 norms to accrue as much political clout against China as possible.
Inviting India was an example, he said. “Trump knows that India and China are having border disputes .”
The last time Beijing deemed South Korea to be complicit in a US encirclement policy was in 2016 and at that time the Korean economy paid a heavy price.
When former South Korean president Park Geun-hye allowed the US to station on South Korean soil a highly advanced anti-missile defence system known as THAAD, relations between Seoul and Beijing quickly broke down .
Even though Seoul argued that installing THAAD – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – was to counter the threat from North Korea, Beijing said the system’s powerful radar capabilities could be used to spy on China.
Beijing boycotts on South Korea followed. The giant Lotte group was slapped with sanctions in China that forced it to shut department stores and supermarkets and later pull out of the country entirely.
Tourist groups from China, by far the largest nationality to visit South Korea, plunged 60 per cent, and even K-pop concerts were banned. China’s state media waded in to drum up anti-Korean sentiment, calling for “revenge” and “destructive strike-backs”. The row rumbled on for more than a year.
South Korea allowed the US to station THAAD on its soil in 2016. Photo: AP
After Moon was elected in 2017, he stepped up efforts to rebuild ties, extending an invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to make a state visit to Seoul. Some media reports said the visit would happen in the first half of 2020, until Covid-19 derailed plans.
A visit by Xi is still a priority for Moon, but Lee said Trump’s invitation complicated matters. Missteps at the expanded G7 meeting could quickly sour relations between South Korea and China.
“China may cancel President Xi’s visit to Seoul,” he said.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic fallout could also be a factor in guiding Beijing’s strategy.
“The kind of international backlash that China is experiencing over Covid-19 might incentivise Chinese policymakers to forge friendlier relations with other countries” rather than taking the THAAD approach, Lee said.
Dr Darren Lim, a researcher in international relations at the Australian National University, said China’s recent use of economic coercion against South Korea could not be ignored.
“The THAAD dispute provides a template. China can impose economic punishments at minimal cost to make a political point,” he said, adding that a “diplomatic freeze” could be used by Beijing to dissuade Seoul from taking part in the summit.
Lim, who has published papers analysing the THAAD dispute, believes a retaliation of the same order would only happen if China’s national interests were targeted at the expanded G7, which has been termed a G11. As well as South Korea, India and Australia, Trump has invited Russia to take part.
“If the ‘G11’ happens and makes concrete decisions adverse to China’s interests, such as on Huawei and 5G, that would be when I’d expect more direct action,” Lim said.
South Korea is enjoying heightened international prestige for its response to Covid-19 and Seoul and Beijing opened a fast-track channel in May to ease restrictions on business travellers to help restart both countries’ economies.
Qi said he believed those practical measures were “very valuable” for both countries’ relations.
“China knows who is the real opponent – it can’t afford to ruin relations with Korea,” he said.
Moon faces the challenge of balancing the competing demands of the US and China, but Qi said Moon’s government policies are more aligned with Beijing’s than those of the conservative governments that preceded him.
“Progressives in South Korea push more for cooperation with North Korea which matches well with the Chinese government’s responsibilities towards North Korea,” he said.
There could be plenty of back-door diplomacy between South Korea and China before the G11 summit in Washington, he said.
“[South] Korea might communicate with the Chinese foreign ministry [about] why they are taking part and what they plan to do,” Qi said.
He said he did not think Seoul would support any joint statement from a G11 that included anti-China rhetoric.
Lim said China might not need to be too concerned about an upgraded G7 because Trump’s policy of “America first” had weakened his standing among other leaders.
The meeting is also likely to happen just before the US presidential election in November, in which Trump will be challenged for the presidency, most likely by Democrat Joe Biden.
“It’s simply impossible to separate the timing of the summit in September from the elections in November. Everything Trump does will be viewed through that lens,” Lim said.
“I would therefore expect the other leaders to have very little confidence about the short-term prospects of any agreement.”
They needed to attend the meeting because Trump might win in November, but bold and controversial moves so close to a US election were unlikely, he said.
“The G7, indeed the entire world order, will look very different under a Biden presidency.”
Eduardo Baptista is a Portuguese-Korean freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Economist, Foreign Policy, and CNN.
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