Seoul doesn’t have to choose between US and China
IFANS head calls for seeking common interest of all parties
By Chung Min-uck
Given its geographic situation surrounded by powerful nations, it has been the general belief that Korea needs to choose a side as part of a tactic for survival.
These days, the nation seems to be in need of choosing between the two super powers — the United States and China — described as the G2.
But the head of a state think-tank denied the allegation and claimed that the possible rivalry between the two nations will not hurt the national interest.
“It is true that there are some conflicts between the United States and China. But South Korea will not be forced into a situation to choose one side,” said Lee Joon-gyu, chancellor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS), in charge of national security and foreign policy.
During an interview with The Korea Times he said, “The speculation that other countries will have to choose between the two nations is just a hypothesis. It is hard to happen in reality.”
His unique stance is based on the view that China is no more a country of a closed-political system and that it is too costly for the two big powers to confront each other concerning domestic issues that need to be handled as a priority.
Open system and cost of conflict
The 57-year-old career diplomat downplayed some analysts’ view that China will seek to dominate the international order after its economic and military power surpasses that of the United States, which is still No. 1 in both areas.
“No country in the world nowadays can have ambitions behind closed doors without being noticed. Even China cannot do that,” said Lee.
“China is becoming an open system like the United States. How can they exercise that ambition even if they have it.”
Concerning extreme rightists in Washington, also known as neocons, who insist on checking China before its rise, he said that it is just one of many options that Washington has which is difficult to be adopted as policy in reality.
“China says they are going to develop their own political system. It doesn’t think of Western democracy as a perfect political system,” said Lee.
“As a neighboring country we just hope China maintains its economic momentum and develops its own political model without falling into disorder. We don’t have to talk about whether Western democracy is right or wrong.”
Secondly, he said it is too costly for the two nations to engage in battle with each other.
“China has so many internal problems which restricts it from confronting the United States on the global stage. The United States too has many internal problems to solve and needs help from China. The two countries have priorities in their internal issues,” said Lee.
When asked about the view that Northeast Asia is to reproduce the old-time picture of two opposing sides like the days of the Cold War but this time with China taking the position of the former Soviet Union, the scholar said that it is a unique structure made during the Cold War era and that it is true only under certain circumstances.
“It is a hasty conclusion to say that two sides (the United States, Japan, South Korea and China, Russia, North Korea) are to split just by looking at few cases.”
Seoul doesn’t have to choose side
The veteran diplomat said that it is wrong to draw a big picture based on particular matters indicating some nation’s inclination to either the United States or China.
“We think China is always on North Korea’s side just by looking at it being supportive to North Korea in the tragic incidents involving the navy ship Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island,” said Lee.
“But it’s not like that in reality. China is trying to be neutral as it cannot take sides. To us China’s position looks as if it is on North Korea’s side.”
China was criticized for not being aggressive on imposing strong sanctions to North Korea either for torpedoing the South Korean navy ship or shelling Yeonpyeong Island last year.
Asked whether South Korea will take a neutral position toward both the United States and China, Lee claimed it doesn’t have to.
“When two sides are fighting then one has to take sides. Why do we have to be neutral when the two nations are not quarreling? South Korea needs to be friendly with both the United States and China,” said Lee.
Future of US-China relationship
Amid motives on U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s visit to the closed state of Myanmar still being questioned, the head of IFANS claims that U.S. policy toward the world’s most populous nation is to cooperate with it for its peaceful rise.
“The official U.S. stance is to cooperate with China for its peaceful development but of course occasionally checking China if necessary,” said Lee.
“There might be some minor confrontations in the future but overall it will not be like an all out press by the United States to contain China.”
Myanmar not sign of rivalry
Myanmar can be an example that shows the United States and China are not at odds and can even share interests along with other nations like South Korea.
Many analysts speculate that Washington, which has shown signs of its strong presence in Asia, recently sent its top official to Myanmar to meet pro-democracy icon Aung Sang Suu Kyi to counter China.
Following her visit, Derek Michell, U.S. special envoy to Myanmar, travelled to Seoul to meet his counterpart in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He asked for Seoul’s cooperation in Washington’s policy toward Myanmar.
The visit caused some foreign policy experts here to speculate that the assumed U.S.-China rivalry could have implications on South Korea.
Meanwhile, China’s aspiring leader and Vice President Xi Jinping met with Myanmar’s military chief just few days ahead of Clinton’s visit and pledged to maintain stronger ties.
Lee said that the three nations — the United States, China and South Korea — don’t have to be in conflict over Myanmar, a country bordering China’s southern frontier, as they all have a common goal of developing a healthy relationship with the nation.
“South Korea and China all want to protect their interests in Myanmar and to have a good relationship with the country,” said Lee. “The United States and China don’t have to disagree on Myanmar.”
Lee admitted there can be some circumstances where the United States and China take different approaches like the case of recent visits to Myanmar by Clinton where Washington is proposing an unprecedented engagement policy following signs of political change while China is sticking with Myanmar’s military rulers.
“China can believe that supporting the military power would be safe and beneficial for them. We think differently in supporting the democratic forces for the same reason. But does this mean we have to confront China? I don’t think so. It goes the same way with the United States and China,” said Lee.
Amid speculation of growing tension between the two big powers, Clinton said her visit to Myanmar was not to challenge its long-time ally China but instead to seek cooperation.
The U.S. point man on Myanmar Mitchell is visiting Beijing this week to discuss on the future developments of Myanmar.
Who is Lee Joon-gyu?
Prior to taking up the top post at IFANS, Lee Joon-gyu was the ambassador for overseas Koreans and consular affairs.
From 2001 to 2004, the diplomat also served as consul-general at the South Korean Embassy in China.
He is considered an expert on Northeast Asia with years of hands-on experience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Lee also was a visiting researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, in 1995.