Between the EU and South Korea, is China heading for rough waters?

Last week a major trade forum between the EU and China was quietly cancelled when China’s attempt to ban dissenters was shot down by European officials. This comes at a time when bilateral relations between China and Europe are not at their best, despite Xi Jinping’s concerted efforts to maintain a stable relationship. Xi’s motivation is likely linked to Chinese concerns that the EU and the US will strive to mend their Trump-induced agreements under Joseph Biden, forming a more unified anti-Chinese bloc in the process.

In a recent conversation with Angela Merkel, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping divulged his desire that  “Germany and the European Union will be open to Chinese enterprises.” He also called French President Emmanuel Macron with a not-so-subtle exhortation to resist falling into the American orbit, committing to pushing forward France-China ties before adding enigmatically, “no matter how the international situation changes”.

As is the case with most things, whether the EU can truly join hands with the US against China largely depends on Germany as Europe’s strongest and most China-dependent economy. Berlin has certainly grown weary of its close economic ties and is viewing them, at least partially, as a geopolitical liability. Consequently, Sino-German, and Sino-European relations, may be in a state of flux that could ring in an at least partial rethink of bilateral dealings.

Same questions about China, different answers

If the EU is at risk of becoming more stand-offish, China doesn’t need to fear the same growing opposition in its own neighbourhood – despite the fact that South Korea, which resembles Germany in its dependence on China, will likely be wooed more intensely by Washington as well. South Korea is clearly caught between a rock and hard place as Sino-American tensions increase. The Asian Tiger is one of the few countries in the world with long-standing ties to both China and the US. But the ever-escalating trade war between US President Trump’s administration and Beijing has hit the South Korean economy hard, and the subject of dependence on the US has long been a national irritant.

Given these vulnerabilities, Seoul has tried to straddle a thin line between two poles, yet a closer look at Seoul’s foreign policy reveals the country has surreptitiously pivoted to China as Trump assumed the presidency. Seoul has subsequently tried to deflect from this fact by launching the New Southern Policy (NSP) in 2017, which aimed at tightening ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India. Although South Korea is unquestionably seeking to bolster regional relations in order to offset some of the growing pressure it feels as a result of China’s assertiveness and economic might.

Then, as now, Seoul’s keenness to cast a wider net for alliances is hardly surprising, but after three years; Seoul has few tangible diplomatic successes to show for it, the announced upgrading of the NSP come next year notwithstanding. The lack of enthusiasm on ASEAN’s part is hardly surprising: The failure to win ASEAN over occurred not least precisely because South Korea has chosen to pivot towards China, leaving the Blue House peninsula firmly embedded in Beijing’s orbit and ASEAN member states deeply distrustful of South Korea.

The price of distrust

Indeed, Seoul’s ability to be a reliable political and economic partner for ASEAN, or even perform in its role as an observer, has been cast into doubt. ASEAN members have proved lukewarm to Moon’s NSP ambitions since 2017, flatly dismissing Seoul’s suggestion to invite North Korea to upcoming celebrations of the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-South Korean relations. “We are being used as a tool [to bring in North Korea],” was the consensus of ASEAN countries at the time, and South Korea was forced to roll out the welcome mat alone, only to be turned down by Pyongyang amid stalled US-North Korea denuclearization negotiations.

China, on the other hand, is expected to continue to antagonise ASEAN maritime sovereignty concerns for the foreseeable future. Annual summits between China and member countries held last month failed to address pressing questions over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. China’s oil rig and survey activity has long-angered Vietnam, while coast guard and military activity has provoked uproar from Malaysia and the Philippines with increased frequency. Stability, cooperation and genuine goodwill between China and ASEAN will prove impossible until these issues are comprehensively dealt with.

Anticipated tensions between China and ASEAN, then, make Seoul’s extended palm to Beijing all the more serious. The biggest loser in all this could be South Korea itself: while some ASEAN members have expressed interest in mediating stalled intra-Korean talks, South Korea’s choosing of China may mean this goodwill option won’t be on the table for long. After all, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s statement that “Bilateral ties are showing their strength and ever more vigour,” surely caused chagrin in ASEAN as it eyes South Korea’s manoeuvring suspiciously.

EU and South Korea: different trajectories

While Europe could become trickier partner in the near future – also depending on how the political winds change in Berlin after the federal elections in 2021 – China is already feeling a pushback as the EU is realising the full extent of its dependence on a country opposing its values and view of the world. But as Europeans are weighing their options, Seoul is arguably in too deep already. South Korea’s National Assembly speaker Moon Hee‐​sang aptly summed up South Korea’s tightrope when he maintained that asking South Korea to choose between China and the US was like “asking a child whether you like your dad or your mom.” For Seoul to lean too far in either direction would make for a rather lonely future indeed.

Image credit: UN Women/Flickr

Please follow and like us: