Korea Must Watch Growing Tensions Between U.S. and China

      November 21, 2011 13:12

      The U.S. has started pressuring China by using its regional neighbors as leverage. On one hand, Washington has sided with ASEAN in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, and on the other hand it has left Beijing out in pushing ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free trade agreement that aims to further liberalize the economies of 12 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the U.S. Apparently realizing that a face-to-face confrontation would be too costly, the U.S. is avoiding a blatant clash with Beijing.

      When ASEAN proposed a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea dispute at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia on Saturday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attempted to draw the line by saying it needs to be resolved between the countries involved and should not be handled at a multilateral forum. In other words, China does not want the U.S. to meddle. 

      But U.S. President Barack Obama said while the U.S. may not be directly involved in the dispute, it has "a powerful stake in maritime security in general, and in the resolution of the South China Sea issue specifically -- as a resident Pacific power, as a maritime nation, as a trading nation and as a guarantor of security in the Asia Pacific region."

      Washington's position on the issue became clear when it dispatched a Navy warship a few months ago to Vietnam, which is engaged in a dispute with China over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea during her recent visit to the Philippines. Obama went a step further during his visit to Australia before attending the ASEAN forum and announced he would station 2,500 U.S. Marines in northern Australia as a "deliberate and strategic decision -- as a Pacific nation, the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future." One of the reasons Obama is dispatching Clinton next month to Burma, a key ally of China, is apparently that he wants to expand Washington's influence in Asia.

      After signing an FTA with Korea, the U.S. has been isolating China further by persuading Japan, Canada and Mexico to join the TPP. China, which had been seeking FTAs with 10 ASEAN countries as well as with Korea and Japan, has begun looking into including India, Australia and New Zealand.

      China believes the U.S. is trying to isolate it in order to get it to raise the value of the yuan and thereby lower America's trade deficit. As a result, Beijing has taken no specific steps to deal with Washington's military pressure. Wen agreed to Obama's request for an unscheduled summit and stressed that it is important to strengthen bilateral cooperation in times of global economic uncertainties. Chinese media are also reporting that the U.S. does not want a war with China but merely economic benefits, and that time is on the side of China, which will overtake the U.S. economy in 10 years.

      The U.S. is trying to look for new growth engines in Asia, which has tremendous development potential, but it remains unclear how cooperative China will be. If the situation continues, it is also uncertain whether the U.S. will continue to be patient or whether China, whose military strength is increasing, will continue to be humble. These uncertainties are heightening tensions in Asia.

      Korea will have no choice but to agree to trade talks with China soon, while Washington and Beijing could clash in the seas neighboring Korea. It cannot afford even for a second to take its eyes off the developing situation, because it needs to seek inter-Korean reunification based on a solid alliance with the U.S. while boosting economic ties with China.

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