Yoon balanced Xi, Biden, Kishida on Southeast Asia trip
President Yoon Suk-yeol wrapped up a Southeast Asian trip Wednesday that featured summits with the leaders of the United States, Japan and China.
During a six-day trip to Cambodia and Indonesia to attend a series of Asean and G20 meetings, Yoon focused on strengthening trilateral security and economic cooperation with the United States and Japan.
Yoon also signaled Seoul’s intent not to exclude Beijing in the process of strengthening its alliance with Washington in his first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On the trip, Yoon revealed Korea’s version of an Indo-Pacific strategy for “freedom, peace and prosperity.” He also laid out his “Korea-Asean solidarity initiative” for cooperation with the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“This trip marked an important milestone in our diplomacy,” said National Security Adviser Kim Sung-han in a press briefing at the Yongsan presidential office Wednesday.
“Establishing our Indo-Pacific strategy means a great shift in our diplomacy. Our diplomatic horizon, which has been confined to the Korean Peninsula, is drastically expanding to the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for about 60 percent of the world economy.”
He added opportunities for Korea “will be diversified and broadened, and the predictability of our foreign policy will also increase.”
On Tuesday, Yoon held a 25-minute bilateral summit in Bali with Xi, the first such meeting between the South Korean and Chinese presidents in nearly three years.
While the two leaders agreed to advance bilateral cooperation, their remarks suggested differences in perspectives on security issues and U.S.-led efforts to decouple from the Chinese market by finding alternative supply chains.
During the talks, Yoon asked China to “play a more active and constructive role” in ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, especially as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Xi was said to have responded that Seoul and Beijing have a “common interest” in safeguarding peace on the Korean Peninsula, according to Yoon’s presidential office.
Xi said he will “actively support” Yoon’s “audacious initiative,” to help North Korea economically if it denuclearizes, with the caveat that North Korea had to be “responsive.”
In August, Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, rejected that initiative flatly.
Seoul officials pointed that there is room for Pyongyang to come around, and said Xi’s remarks leave an opportunity for Beijing to play a role.
However, Chinese state media did not report any of Xi’s remarks about North Korea, which could mean that Beijing doesn’t plan to change the current status quo or encourage Pyongyang to return to denuclearization negotiations.
The two leaders also did not see eye-to-eye on the global supply chain issue.
Xi’s call for “true multilateralism” in opening remarks appeared to be a jab at the U.S.-led initiative to build a global supply chain network with only its allies.
The two sides need to deepen cooperation in “high-tech manufacturing, big data and green economy” and “uphold the international free trade system, keep the global industrial and supply chains secure, stable and unclogged, and oppose politicizing economic cooperation or overstretching the concept of security on such cooperation,” Xi was quoted as saying by China’s Global Times.
This seemed to be a message that Seoul should not participate in U.S.-led groupings such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the so-called Chip 4 alliance, a semiconductor supply chain consultative body that includes South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
The last summit between the South Korean and Chinese leaders was on Dec. 23, 2019, when President Moon Jae-in held bilateral talks with Xi in Beijing.
“Dialogue between South Korea and China is essential in overcoming the challenges facing us, such as the pandemic, global economic downturn and climate change,” Yoon said in a statement shared on Facebook late Tuesday before returning to Seoul. “China’s role is very important to promote freedom, peace and prosperity in East Asia and the international community.”
Xi was also invited to visit to Seoul — which he said he would when the Covid-19 situation stabilizes.
Such efforts reflect Seoul’s efforts to manage the so-called “China risk” factor amid growing Sino-U.S. competition and the Yoon administration’s efforts to strengthen its bilateral alliance with Washington.
Despite Xi’s lukewarm response on dealing with Pyongyang, some analysts view Yoon and Xi’s summit in itself as a message to North Korea.
“It’s a bit difficult to agree that our government’s diplomacy is skewed toward the United States,” a senior presidential official told reporters Wednesday when asked about the Yoon administration’s apparent tilt toward Washington and Tokyo.
“There’s plenty of room to globally contribute together with China,” said the official. “We will actively seek areas in which we can contribute to the expansion of the common good by joining forces with China.”
On the sidelines of Asean meetings in Phnom Penh Sunday, Yoon, U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held a three-way summit and released a statement on “trilateral partnership for the Indo-Pacific,” which covered both security and economic cooperation.
The three leaders “strongly condemned” North Korea’s ballistic missile launches and said that a seventh nuclear test “would be met with a strong and resolute response from the international community.”
The leaders agreed to share intelligence on North Korea “in real time” to improve their abilities to detect and assess missile threats, and Biden reaffirmed a U.S. commitment to extended deterrence to its East Asian allies.
The three leaders said their “basic positions on Taiwan remain unchanged” and stressed the “importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
The three countries also agreed to “stand together to promote and protect our technology leadership, for the benefit of the region and the world” to “ensure secure and resilient supply chains.”
They agreed to cooperate closely on the U.S.-led IPEF aimed at “promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth” and work together toward “implementing their various Indo-Pacific Strategies.”
Beijing has been wary of stronger security cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo as it could lead to a trilateral military alliance and the strengthening of an American missile defense network.
Before the trilateral talks on Sunday, Yoon and Biden held their second bilateral summit, which lasted 50 minutes, an opportunity for Yoon to raise concerns about the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Biden was said to have replied that Korean companies in the automobile and electric battery sectors greatly contribute to the U.S. economy and that the implementation of the act will take into consideration these factors.
However, the two sides didn’t immediately come up with a more tangible way of alleviating Korean companies’ worries.
Later Sunday, Yoon and Kishida held a 45-minute summit and agreed to try to reach a swift solution to pending issues. The two last held briefer “informal” bilateral talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
Seoul and Tokyo have struggled to overcome the issue of compensation for Korean wartime forced laborers.
Japan imposed export restrictions on Korea in the summer of 2019, seen as retaliation to Korea’s Supreme Court’s rulings in 2018 ordering Japanese companies to individually compensate the forced labor victims during World War II.
“Although there was no discussion about a specific solution to the forced labor issue, both leaders confirmed that intensive discussions are underway and that they were well-informed about the progress of the discussions,” said the senior presidential official.
The official said that the gap in perspectives has “narrowed a lot” and “there was an atmosphere to try to resolve the issue speedily.”
This official pointed out that the forced labor issue is also linked to the export restrictions and the normalizing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.
During a three-day visit to Phnom Penh from Friday to Sunday, Yoon took part in the Korean-Asean summit, Asean plus three summit involving Korea, Japan and China and the East Asia Summit, a regional security forum.
In Bali, Yoon met with Korean businesspeople in Indonesia, took part in the B20 summit with political and business leaders from the G20 countries and attended a Korea-Indonesia business roundtable on Monday.
On Tuesday, Yoon gave speeches at a session on food and energy security and another one on global health at the G20 summit.
Yoon and first lady Kim Keon-hee arrived in Korea on Air Force One early Wednesday morning.
The trip was not without controversy, as MBC reporters were barred from traveling on the presidential jet ahead of the Southeast Asia trip for “distorted” reporting. The presidential press corps issued a joint statement expressing their “regret” and several other journalists partook in a boycott and opted to fly to Cambodia on commercial flights. Members of the press corps also were unable to cover the major summits, which the presidential office said was according to agreements with the other countries.
Yoon’s diplomatic outreach continues this week with a bilateral summit with the Netherlands on Thursday and Spain on Friday.
BY SARAH KIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]