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Unite with Europe for the Sino-American war

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Lee Jae Seung
The author is a professor of international studies at Korea University and director of the Ilmin Institute of International Relations.

In mid-September, prominent people from Europe, the United States, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and other countries flocked to Villa La Collina — the summer residence of the first West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) — at Lake Como in northern Italy. At a meeting of the Global Strategic Advisory Group hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, distinguished guests, including academics, held a heated debate on bringing together allies and rivals from a European perspective, against a backdrop of rapid overhaul of the world order.

European and American members of the advisory group highlighted even stronger cooperation between countries sharing the same values ​​such as democracy and the rule of law. But representatives of the non-Western world defended pragmatism, asserting their own interests rather than the values ​​that the West “forces them to accept.” Prioritizing so-called “values ​​diplomacy” seemed to be the norm for dividing the world between the West and non-Western countries dubbed the “Global South.” Where does Korea fit in between?

The answer came more easily than expected. For them, Korea was a member of “the West.” In terms of economic size or diplomatic policy, Korea’s worldview is not so detached from that of the United States, Europe, and Japan. No one at the meeting expressed doubt that Korea was a member of the West.

At first glance, Korea’s immature politics – as evidenced by a number of immature politicians and endless incidents – may warrant doubt. But in the eyes of foreign countries, Korea has already become a member of the West, and they demand that it play its rightful role.

In this sense, the international problems facing Europe today are fundamentally no different from those in Korea. China is at the center of their misfortunes. Europe and Korea are struggling to find a way to survive the endless Sino-US war for hegemony and to find a balance between values-based and practical diplomacy in the face of their own political and economic dilemmas.

Almost all countries pursue practical diplomacy with China, given its massive economic power and market size. If a country severs economic relations with China, it will face immense risks in the international arena. The United States is engaged in a crusade to rebuild global supply chains and strengthen its economic security, and Europe is under pressure to rejoin the U.S.-led global order. Everyone, including Korea, is watching each other closely to determine the appropriate level of its economic relations with China.

Europe’s economic ties with China have evolved in recent years. After designating Europe as the western end of its Belt and Road Initiative in the 2010s, China promised colossal investments in the continent. China even launched the “16+1” framework targeting states in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans – and forced their leaders to accompany Chinese President Xi Jinping for a photo op. Western Europe and the European Union (EU) were moved. After unveiling the Connectivity Strategy 2.0 in 2018, the EU began to contain China while moving eastward.

But in 2023, Europe’s Chinese dream took a sudden turn following the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the worsening Sino-US conflict. As Chinese investments did not arrive, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe quickly distanced themselves from China. Countries with bitter memories of Soviet times strengthened ties with the United States and NATO rather than China after Beijing backed Moscow in the Ukraine war.

Meanwhile, Germany and France, whose trade share with China is relatively high, are desperate for strategic room to maneuver. Of the 147.2 billion euros ($157.9 billion) the EU invested in China between 2020 and 2022, 62% came from Germany, followed by France and the Netherlands. The Chinese risk for the EU has migrated from Central to Western Europe.

However, Europe could not give in to China on the issue of values ​​such as human rights and the rule of law. After the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and associated organizations for the repression of human rights in Xinjiang Uyghur in March 2021, China listed members of the European Parliament and the Council’s Political and Security Committee European on its list of retaliatory sanctions. Europe reacted coldly to China’s unfathomable countermeasure.

China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” has only helped Europe bottom out in various polls, fueled by growing European distrust of closer China-Russia relations after the war in Ukraine. An unbridgeable gap has emerged between China and Europe in terms of value systems, freezing of investment agreements and other types of relations.

For Germany, the engine of the European economy, the big question is how to separate economics from politics in its strategy towards China. Germany has long focused on protecting the interests of companies in the automobile manufacturing, mechanical, electronics and chemical sectors, based on Wandel durch Handel, or change through trade. China has become Germany’s largest trading partner over the past seven years, with increasing trade and investment volumes.

But Germany’s position toward China is changing, as briefly hinted by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who recently said: “China has changed. As a result of this and China’s political decisions, we must change our approach towards China.” After Xi’s third term was confirmed last November, the German chancellor did lead a large-scale economic delegation to Beijing, but he quickly emphasized the need for “smart diversification.”

In its first strategic report on relations with China, Germany in July defined China as a “systemic rival” that prioritizes the interests of a one-party system over a rules-based order . After the alarm was raised on sensitive issues – such as China’s repression of human rights, the methodical crackdown on spies and disinformation – at the national security strategy level, Germany granted top priority to economic relations with the United States and NATO to meet these challenges. Germany has pledged to stand with other EU members in the face of economic pressure from China.

Certainly, Germany does not intend to kill the cow that still supplies milk, because it cannot simply get rid of the gigantic Chinese market. But once practicality trumps values, it starts to spiral out of control. If Germany, guardian of order, collapses, Europe collapses. Since Germany cannot cope with China alone, it desperately needs reliable countries within Europe’s borders and beyond. As a result, the importance of Korea and Japan as partners of Germany and other EU members in technology and rule of law is increasing.

China wants to divide Europe by militarizing its always attractive market and investments, while Europe continues to design countermeasures, separately or together. The war between China and Europe continues. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a hardliner on China, angered the Chinese Foreign Ministry after calling Xi a “dictator” on par with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier, the EU warned of a trade dispute with China by announcing plans to impose tariffs on subsidies provided by Beijing to Chinese electric vehicles. China and Europe are grappling with the imminent danger of an economic recession.

If values ​​and the alliance converge, bargaining power increases. Based on bilateral relations, no country can deal effectively with China. A West sharing the same values ​​is no longer as solidly united as before. The United States alone cannot lead the West, and neither can Europe.

They need partners. The United States and Japan – as well as Europe and Korea – need each other. The West is certainly not a substantively founded entity, and Korea should not gloat about being a proud member of the West. Korea may instead have to grapple with apparent resistance to a new alliance based on values ​​such as democracy, rule of law and human rights, possibly at the cost of economic losses.

Korea also needs economic relations with non-Western countries, notably the BRICS. But for some countries, the values ​​themselves become national interests. While there are countries that desperately need a security alliance to safeguard their freedom and democracy, there are others whose trade systems or rule of law help secure their economic interests. For some countries that have acquired freedom and human rights after a long period of bloodshed, the values ​​themselves become principles that they must respect at all costs.

Korea’s strategy toward China must begin by clearly defining the values ​​and principles that the country must respect. Practical and detailed tactics can result from this. The integrity of a nation and its partnership depends on whether it possesses such values ​​and principles. Expedient pragmatism cannot last long. Instead, broader solidarity based on firm values ​​diplomacy can strengthen Korea’s position in its relations with China based on the rule of law. Europe and Korea can certainly share their concerns to find an answer.

Translation carried out by the Korea JoongAng Daily team.


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