S Korea must stay neutral in standoff
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S Korea must stay neutral in standoff

The Republic of Korea (ROK), more commonly known as South Korea, has become caught in the middle of US-China tensions. Seoul recently sought to steel its security alliance with Washington amid threats from Pyongyang, historically a Beijing ally, and rivalry with Tokyo as well as wanting to protect its high economic stakes in China.

Seoul's exports to Beijing, which amount to nearly 26% of its total exports with a trade volume that is larger than the the ROK's trade with Japan and the US combined, is the backbone of the country's economy. The East Asian country therefore can hardly afford to strain ties with China and risk further woe for its economy.

Frictions between Beijing and Seoul, over ROK's deal with the US to deploy THAAD anti-missile system, flared into an outright diplomatic bickering in February 2016. At the time, Beijing warned that the bilateral relation could be "destroyed in an instant" while the ROK argued the decision was made to counter "North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threats".

Under then-new South Korean President Moon Jae-in, because of Seoul's dried-out exports to Beijing and sinking Chinese tourist arrivals, the diplomatic impasse finally broke in October 2017 and the country fostered détente with China in an effort to head off the imminent economic crisis by bringing "exchange and cooperation in all areas back on normal development track".

Mr Moon's three no's -- no more deployment of THAAD, no integration into a US-led regional missile defence systems and no formation of a trilateral military alliance with America and Japan, contributed to a thawing in China-ROK ties and helped Asia's fourth-largest economy ship goods to its biggest export market.

So far, Mr Moon has refused to support the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or "Quad", comprised of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia ("the Quad plus alpha") and had been ambivalent towards promoting the US "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" (FOIP) vision.

He has acknowledged the importance of the Quad and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and recently agreed to align with the ROK's Asean-centric New Southern Policy (NSP) with the FOIP, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea (SCS).

The joint statement Mr Moon made with the US president during last week's visit has been perceived in South Korea as a tilt toward the US, backtracking its neutral position in the China-America conflict and throwing its weight behind Washington. But the ROK president -- who last week travelled to the US after skipping foreign tours since December 2019 -- still delicately balanced the tone of the shared declaration.

While the joint statement did not mention China once and Mr Moon didn't touch on the security aspect of the Quad, which Beijing continues to label an anti-China coalition, he talked cautiously on the Taiwan issue in a way not to provoke Beijing but that cleverly linked his NSP -- which before his arrival at the White House called for substantive cooperation with Washington in seven health, technology and infrastructure areas -- with the FOIP through "respective approaches".

It is also important to note that for three years in a row, South Korea has cancelled the biannual joint military exercises with the US to prevent stirring tensions with North Korea. On the other hand, former Moon adviser, Moon Chung-in, as recently as last month, urged the government to pursue a "transcendental foreign policy", as by taking sides with the US, peace and prosperity would be "hard to guarantee" in the region amid the intensifying China-US conflict.

Before the summit, the Biden administration reportedly pressed Mr Moon to act as more than a decumbent US ally and take up strong language against Beijing. But the ROK president -- very well aware of huge political, economic and security implications -- had no choice except balancing his stance between the existing and nascent superpowers to safeguard the nation's security alliance with the US and economic interests in Beijing, a popular consensus building in domestic politics.

Unfortunately for the US, it is not just progressives who have been searching for a middle ground between Beijing and Washington; no prominent conservative national security experts think the country should join the Quad, indicating there might not be any changes in the ROK's China policy even if conservatives win in the 2022 election.

US President Joe Biden is willing to meet North Korea's President Kim Jong-un and diplomatically engage the country for complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula if he makes a serious commitment to discuss dropping his nuclear ambitions. He appointed an Obama-era US ambassador to Seoul, Sung Kim, as his special envoy for Pyongyang.

However, following close consultations with Seoul during a drawn-out review of the North Korea policy which led to it remaining "deeply concerned" about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions -- the White House, having declined to offer incentives ahead of the summit, didn't give any specifics of concessions it would extend to bring North Korea back to the table. That was despite Mr Kim's conciliatory moves not to conduct nuclear tests or firing intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017.

There are fears in South Korea that any obvious favouring of the US -- oblique support for the Quad and FOIP alongside upsetting China over Taiwan and the SCS -- would enrage Beijing, perhaps the only country that can help to reengage Pyongyang over denuclearisation and stopping its missile launches.

A Pew Research Center poll published last October is often cited as indicating that 83% of South Koreans lack confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping's handling of "world affairs" and 75% see Beijing in a somewhat or a very unfavourable light. But it is also a historical fact that many on the Korean peninsula are closely associated with Chinese civilisation and feel proud of being "Sojunghwa" or "little China", while Beijing is making efforts to further promote cross-country cultural exchanges with Seoul.

Former ROK president Park Geun-hye, jailed for 20 years over corruption charges, in 2015 visited China to commemorate the end of World War II with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tiananmen square where she stressed the importance of strategic cooperation with Beijing.

Washington's narcissistic strategy, idle talk over denuclearisation, unpredictability as a reliable South Korean partner and Trumpisation of American politics, like many countries, has withered the chances of clear support from Seoul for the Biden administration and elevated the likelihood that the ROK will stick to its neutral position in the China-US standoff.

Azhar Azam writes on economic and geopolitical issues and regional conflicts and is an opinion contributor to CGTN, News24, The Mail & Guardian, New Straits Times and The Express Tribune.

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