SEOUL – When South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait alongside his American counterpart Joe Biden in Washington, it may have appeared as an unexpected drift towards the American position.
Yet their May 21 summit statement elicited relatively little recoil from China for addressing a subject Beijing sees as a core, non-negotiable interest.
The result was an apparent victory for Moon’s mid-power democracy – a delicate balance between the United States and China.
China did not officially respond to the statement until Monday, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged countries to “speak and act cautiously on the Taiwan issue and refrain from gambling. with fire “. Foreign policy experts say Zhao’s words, while still harsh, were relatively narrow given the topic.
While naming Taiwan in the statement, South Korea throughout the summit tiptoed around China. The leaders’ statement did not refer directly to the country, and Moon at a joint press conference then acknowledged “the special characteristics between China and Taiwan.”
In an appearance on South Korean television on Wednesday, Xing Haiming, China’s ambassador to South Korea, said with a smile that Seoul had worked hard to prevent China from participating in the joint statement. A source from the Blue House said of the ambassador’s remarks that “China understands South Korea’s position.”
This agreement appears to have emerged from close consultations with China prior to the summit. “China had been informed in advance of the bulk of the summit’s agenda,” according to a diplomatic source in Seoul.
South Korea reportedly agreed with China in advance to avoid human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang in exchange for mentioning the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad – a partnership between the United States. , Japan, India and Australia to promote peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific – in Moon’s declaration with Biden.
This approach is rooted in South Korea’s experience under former President Park Geun-hye, whose decision in 2016 to deploy the high-altitude area defense missile shield developed by the United States severed ties. with China.
Park had previously maintained close relations with China. She had visited Beijing the previous year and attended a parade with Chinese President Xi Jinping celebrating the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
But the deployment of THAAD sparked a strong crackdown from China, including severe sanctions on South Korean products. This experience left Seoul in fear of opposing Beijing again for failing to consult on contentious issues.
Nestled in the midst of the great powers, the Korean peninsula has always faced a delicate balance between its neighbors. North Korean founder Kim Il Sung notably concluded mutual aid agreements with China and the Soviet Union in 1961, taking advantage of the growing rivalry between its two biggest allies for economic and military assistance.
South Korea has focused for decades primarily on strengthening its economic and security ties with the United States. It began to pursue a more “balanced” diplomacy under President Roh Moo-hyun, who took over his tenure in 2003, the year China overtook the United States as South Korea’s largest export market. .
As tensions between the United States and China increased, South Korea’s geopolitical importance to the region increased. For Moon, this represents a greater opportunity to pursue balanced diplomacy like his mentor Roh, under whom the current president served as chief of staff.
South Korean companies have pledged to invest about $ 40 billion in the United States as part of Moon’s trip, and the United States has pledged to support dialogue with North Korea and ease tensions in the Korean Peninsula.
Seoul also maintained close communications with Beijing, and Moon informed South Korean party leaders on Wednesday of his plans to visit Xi in the near future.
But at the end of his term, Moon must maintain diplomatic balance against new headwinds, especially as a final decision on THAAD looms. South Korea is conducting an environmental assessment of the system, of which six units are temporarily deployed in the country.
A South Korean proverb warns that in a fight between whales the shrimp are torn apart. With political rivalries intensifying in South Korea ahead of a presidential election next year, the stakes are only rising.