Seoul, South Korea – Throughout campaigning in South Korea’s presidential election, Yoon Suk-yeol promised to strike a transparent path in his nation’s long-running dilemma over how one can stability relations with the US and China.
With the 2 international superpowers jostling for financial and navy supremacy in Asia, the candidate for the conservative Individuals Energy Occasion pledged to decisively aspect with its safety ally the US, even when it risked South Korea’s essential commerce relationship with China.
Yoon stated he would go so far as to develop the presence of a US missile defence system referred to as THAAD in South Korea, which sparked pricey unofficial sanctions on South Korean items and tradition by China and set off years of frosty relations.
Solely weeks after taking workplace on Could 10, Yoon will see his loyalties examined in his personal again yard on Friday, when US President Joe Biden visits Seoul as a part of a visit to Asia that additionally consists of Japan, one other US ally.
Biden’s go to comes as international commerce is going through strain from greater than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions to vitality and meals provide chains resulting from Russia’s struggle on Ukraine.
China is by far South Korea’s largest buying and selling associate, taking greater than one-quarter of its exports, and Seoul depends on its large neighbour to energy key industries akin to chips and autos. South Korea additionally has a complete safety alliance with the US that dates again to the 1950-53 Korean Struggle. The nation nonetheless hosts roughly 28,000 American troops on its soil.
On the eve of his first assembly with Biden, Yoon, a former prosecutor with no political expertise previous to turning into president, seems to be shortly studying simply how troublesome it’s for the chief of an export-dependent, mid-sized Asia Pacific nation to stability commerce, safety and diplomatic priorities at a time of rising rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.
Although he talked robust on China earlier than taking workplace, Yoon’s early actions as president recommend he has reckoned with the necessity to stability South Korea’s alliance with the US with its commerce reliance on China. Notably, he seems to have walked again his attention-grabbing election marketing campaign promise to deploy extra THAAD batteries in South Korea, with the pledge omitted from a listing of governance duties just lately launched by his workplace.
He additionally held telephone talks with Chinese language President Xi Jinping earlier than taking workplace, throughout which the 2 leaders exchanged cordial statements about bilateral relations. Chinese language Vice President Wang Qishan travelled to Seoul to attend Yoon’s inauguration on Could 10, and earlier than his journey, China’s overseas ministry described the international locations as “shut neighbours” and “essential cooperation companions”.
Whereas in Seoul, Wang conveyed a letter from Xi inviting Yoon to make an official go to to China.
Either side have an incentive to keep up the strong bilateral commerce of current years. Final 12 months, South Korea’s exports to China rose greater than 20 p.c, pushed by brisk shipments of semiconductors and metal.
In April, with main Chinese language cities underneath lockdown resulting from COVID-19, shipments declined 3.4 p.c from a 12 months earlier after gaining 16.6 p.c in March, in keeping with the South Korean commerce ministry.
In his dealings with China, Yoon is prone to search to navigate these financial headwinds whereas being cautious to not be seen as taking Beijing’s aspect over Washington.
“Growing US-China rivalry places Korea, and plenty of Southeast Asian international locations, in a troublesome place,” Erik Mobrand, a political scientist at Seoul Nationwide College, informed Al Jazeera. “The query is, if Yoon’s place on China brings financial retaliation, how does he reply to that?”
“It’s one factor to speak robust on China whereas campaigning,” Mobrand added. “It’s one other to make a press release or take motion as president and face the potential of responses from China.”
Ballot information signifies a souring of public opinion on China, notably amongst younger folks, who as voters have been a coveted demographic within the March presidential election.
In a survey carried out by present affairs journal Sisain and pollster Hankook Analysis in June, simply 26 p.c of respondents had heat emotions in direction of China, in contrast with 57 p.c who felt warmly in direction of the US.
Among the many causes for his or her unfavourable impression, respondents pointed to South Korea’s drawback with air air pollution – which many South Koreans blame on poorly regulated carbon-emitting factories in China – Beijing’s gradual response within the early levels of the coronavirus pandemic, and unlawful fishing by Chinese language vessels in South Korean waters.
Within the carefully fought election, Yoon appeared to intentionally faucet into this negativity with the hope of mobilising voters.
“Yoon’s emphasis on a forceful diplomatic strategy to China displays the present state of affairs the place the South Korean public’s impression of China may be very unfavourable,” Shin Jung-seung, a former South Korean ambassador to China, informed Al Jazeera.
“The emphasis on the alliance with the US is inevitable at a time when safety issues, just like the North Korean nuclear risk and the struggle in Ukraine, are rising. However that doesn’t imply that Yoon will neglect relations with China.”
Cooperation on commerce and infrastructure
Whereas in Seoul, Biden may search a dedication from Yoon to have South Korea be a part of the Indo-Pacific Financial Framework (IPEF), a proposed US-led physique that may facilitate cooperation on commerce and infrastructure between the US and Asia. South Korea is among the many international locations anticipated to participate, together with Japan, Australia and others.
Although the Biden administration has not but provided a transparent clarification of the precise capabilities of the IPEF, analysts have argued that the purpose of the physique is to assist the US counter rising Chinese language financial clout in Asia.
In feedback to South Korea’s legislature on Monday, Yoon indicated that he’ll talk about the IPEF throughout Biden’s go to and that he’s in favour of South Korea becoming a member of. On Wednesday, the presidential Blue Home confirmed that Yoon will just about attend a summit in Tokyo subsequent week the place Biden will formally launch the initiative.
Biden’s journey will subsequently require cautious messaging from Yoon as he makes an attempt to stability relations with Washington and Beijing, however can be an opportunity for the brand new South Korean chief to make good on guarantees he made on the marketing campaign path.
“Yoon desires to develop the US-South Korea alliance and make it extra complete, which implies having a higher curiosity within the Indo-Pacific and a higher connection in chosen areas, akin to COVID or provide chain resilience,” Mason Richey, a professor of politics at Hankuk College of Overseas Research in Seoul, informed Al Jazeera.
“Yoon might want to again up this coverage choice when Biden involves the area.”