Biden presidency to bring opportunities for Korea's diplomacy

Biden presidency to bring opportunities for Korea's diplomacy

US President-elect expected to pursue 'balanced relation' with China

The presidency of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will bring meaningful opportunities for Korea's diplomacy, as the former vice president is expected to pursue "balanced relations" with China, according to Zhao Ma, a U.S.-based expert on U.S.-China relations, Friday.

The change in the U.S. administration, in his view, will create a better environment for South Korea to play a greater role as a mediator on various issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Ma's view came as Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up his tour of Japan and Korea, two key U.S. allies in the region, the same day.

During Wang's visit to Japan and Korea, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Nov. 25 that he wants a "win-win" relationship with the U.S. and less confrontation. But the dominant view is that U.S.-China tension will continue in Biden's term in office.

One of the highlights during Wang's Korea visit was when he said, "The U.S. is not the only country in the world. There are 190 countries and like Korea, China, they are all independent, sovereign nations." This came during an encounter with local media following his talks with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, early Thursday, before he met with President Moon Jae-in later in the day at Cheong Wa Dae. The remark seemed to show China's rising confidence in the face of its rivalry with the U.S. whose status as a global leader has been weakened during the Trump presidency.

"After four years under Trump, the Asia-Pacific region has become even more fragmented and fragile, with an assertive China, a defiant North Korea, a tinderbox in Taiwan, and a half-baked anti-China Five Eyes intelligence alliance including Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. The U.S.-China competition will be the theme of Biden's national security strategy and is likely to remain so for his successor," Ma, an associate professor of modern Chinese history at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, said in a recent Korea Times interview on Korea's diplomatic challenges in the Biden presidency.

The U.S.-China competition is mainly seen as a challenge by the local media and diplomatic community that express concerns over Korea being caught in a new Cold War. But some analysts within and outside Korea are paying attention to the opportunities that the superpower rivalry may bring for the middle power. Particularly during Trump's term, Korea has increasingly faced questions about making a "choice" between the two superpowers.

Biden is expected to opt for cooperation with Beijing on global issues and stay away from the openly anti-Chinese stance of President Trump. The change in the U.S. administration, therefore, could set a better environment for Korea to play a stronger role as a mediator, on top of its status as a middle power and an active player in multilateral diplomacy. "Biden's vision of building a balanced and comprehensive relationship with Beijing, coinciding with Beijing's attempt to salvage some form of collaborative regional system (particularly for trade), will offer some invaluable opportunities for South Korea to serve as a catalyst for dialogue rather than as the frontline of a new Cold War," Ma said.

Wang's visit came amid lingering uncertainties in some of Seoul's diplomatic priorities, such as the Korea-China-Japan summit being arranged to take place in December. So far, Japan has not committed to participating because of the historical row stemming from Korea's Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of the peninsula. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga sees the ruling as a breach of the 1965 Korea-Japan normalization treaty and has said he will not visit Korea unless there is an acceptable resolution to the issue.

Experts say the trilateral gathering carries particular significance this year, as the three stakeholders on regional security need to prepare for possible provocations by North Korea ahead of the arrival of the new U.S. president. "In the first six months of Trump's term, Pyongyang test-fired 12 missiles," Ma noted. "Kim might be planning to challenge President Biden early in his term, to test his reactions. Therefore, the trilateral summit could offer an opportunity for the three stakeholders on regional security to discuss a contingency plan."

The following are edited responses from a written interview with Professor Ma.

Q) How do you see the U.S. Asia-Pacific strategy and the U.S.-China competition unfolding in the Biden presidency?
A) To be clear, unlike his four predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who had little experience in handling foreign affairs when they took the White House, Joe Biden is a decades-long veteran and architect of American foreign policy. As vice president in the Obama administration he was not only familiar with but endorsed the Pivot to Asia (later renamed Asia Rebalancing) strategy that aimed at neutralizing China's rising influence and growing dominance over the Asia-Pacific region. His foreign policy is expected to be a holistic, multilateral and administration-centered process.

By holistic, Biden is likely to discontinue Trump's all-out assault on China. While not shying away from confrontations with China in areas such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, he will reach out to China when cooperation between the two governments is in great need to tackle global challenges, such as the COVID pandemic and climate change. By multilateral, Biden will seek to repair relations with allies and partners in the region and to rebuild a rule-based system under American leadership.

By administration-based, Biden will surely ditch Trump's crude and narcissistic behavior on the international stage. Biden will conduct foreign policy primarily through established diplomatic channels and follow conventional diplomatic decorum. After four years under Trump, the Asia-Pacific region has become even more fragmented and fragile, with an assertive China, a defiant North Korea, a tinderbox in Taiwan, and a half-baked anti-China Five Eyes alliance. The U.S.-China competition will be the theme of Biden's national security strategy and is likely to remain so for his successor.

US-China rivalry

Q) The escalating U.S.-China competition is emerging as one of the biggest challenges for Korea's diplomacy. In the Biden presidency, how should Korea strategize to strengthen its alliance with the U.S, which is considered to have deteriorated under Trump, and at the same time restore its relations with Beijing?
A) Escalating U.S.-China tensions, or a new Cold War between Beijing and Washington, as many political pundits are enthusiastically or anxiously talking about these days, would be catastrophic for the world, particularly for countries like South Korea. South Korea is America's treaty ally and thus South Korea, when designing its own foreign policy, needs to consider (to say the least) Washington's agenda and priorities; but the expanding economic ties with China have become vitally important for South Korea's economic security and prosperity. In this regard, Trump's relentless attack on Beijing has produced some damaging effects, making Seoul choose sides and ripping apart the supply chain that has sustained the region's economic success for decades. But Biden's vision of building a balanced and comprehensive relationship with Beijing, coinciding with Beijing's attempt to salvage some form of collaborative regional system (particularly for trade), will offer some invaluable opportunities for South Korea to serve as a catalyst for dialogue rather than as the frontline of a new Cold War.

Q) What are some of the outcomes that can be expected from a prospective visit to Korea by Chinese President Xi Jinping from the perspective of bilateral relations, as well as Korean Peninsula issues??
A) I can see some strong incentives on the side of Beijing to visit Seoul before members of the Biden administration come to the region. President Xi and other top Chinese leaders should see a vacuum of leadership ― a leaderless East Asia and the larger world ― as Washington is mired in a self-engineered constitutional crisis. Trump continues to sow doubt about the election result and Biden is likely to suffer a deficiency of attention to foreign policy due to the domestic chaos.

Beijing might want to optimize this strategic limbo; to strengthen its ties to South Korea and other countries primarily through deepening trade ties and collaborating to contain the COVID pandemic, which could make any attempt by Washington to either decouple China from the global supply chain or keep China on the sidelines of a Washington-designed trade system difficult to accomplish. Seoul needs Beijing's cooperation, not only to grow bilateral trade, but also to stop Pyongyang from provoking the Biden team and to resume denuclearization talks.

Regional security

Q) Under the Biden administration, how do you see China-North Korea relations and China's role in North Korea's denuclearization?
A) One thing for sure is that Biden's relationship with Kim Jong-un is off to a rocky and fiery start. Kim has called the incoming U.S. president a "rabid dog" that should "be beaten to death," while Biden called Kim a "thug" in the second presidential debate. It is also clear that Biden is not interested in another round of personal diplomacy as he and his team will be pursuing a "principled diplomacy" that focuses on substance over photo ops for any meetings with Pyongyang.

Biden also faces improved relations between Beijing and Pyongyang, partially as a result of Trump's maximum pressure on both governments. There could be two scenarios: If after January, Washington continues pressuring China on all fronts, like what we see in the Trump administration, Beijing could further loosen its sanctions on Pyongyang. Doing so could complicate and even undermine Washington's effort to force Kim to return to the negotiation table by cutting off the regime's economic lifeline. In the other scenario, if Washington is interested in multilateral talks and seeks Beijing's cooperation, Beijing is likely to respond positively. But what both Beijing and Washington, as well as Seoul and Tokyo, should keep in mind is that it is more difficult now than ever to ask Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

History tells us that countries are unlikely to give up nuclear weapons unless some dramatic changes in circumstances occur. What could dramatic changes be? Perhaps a peace treaty to end the 70-year old war on the Korean Peninsula or unification. But neither is likely to happen.

Q) Korea is pushing to hold the annual Korea-Japan-China summit in Seoul in December. What should be the focus of the meeting of the three leading countries in Northeast Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the change in the U.S. government?
A) There could be at least three urgent issues on the table to discuss if the trilateral summit were to take place in Seoul: First, significant progress has been made in the quest for a coronavirus vaccine, but there hasn't been much talk or plans as how to distribute vaccines among major powers and to poorer countries. Not having such a plan in place would only prolong the pandemic.

Second, the post-pandemic road to economic recovery could be smoother if the three leading economies in the region coordinate and cooperate. Third, moving from vaccine distribution and economic recovery to regional security, leaders of the three countries could also discuss the contingency of Pyongyang's potential provocations. In the first six months of Trump's term, Pyongyang test-fired 12 missiles. Kim might be planning to challenge President Biden early in his term, to test his reactions. Therefore, the trilateral summit could offer an opportunity for the three stakeholders on regional security to discuss a contingency plan.

To be clear, the three countries have different considerations with regard to the defiance of Pyongyang. Seoul and Tokyo will ultimately need to coordinate their security strategies with their ally in Washington; Beijing calculates its relationship with Pyongyang in part as a hedge against U.S. influence in the region. But as the three leading countries in Northeast Asia are hoping to contain the coronavirus and restart the economy, they will have more incentives to put regional security on their meeting agenda rather than sit idly by and watch Pyongyang's provocative words and deeds throw the region into chaos.

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