Signs of a heated power struggle between Washington and Beijing have been becoming clearer across the political, diplomatic and economic fields since the COVID-19 pandemic sparked tensions between them. “The CCP (the Chinese Communist Party)’s expanding use of economic, political, and military power to compel acquiescence from nation states harms vital American interests and undermines the sovereignty and dignity of countries and individuals around the world,” the White House said in a report submitted to the U.S. Congress. It also pointed out the need to rethink the policies of the past two decades toward China. Triggered by economic tensions and COVID-19 related accountability issues, the power struggle between Washington and Beijing has turned into a long-run warfare.
The world’s two biggest economic powerhouses have constantly engaged in obvious trade war since the Trump administration was inaugurated. These days, however, they have pointed an accusatory finger at each other since the COVID-19 pandemic took place, even using bluntly explicit phrases such as “a vicious authoritarian regime” and “totally insane.” As Beijing announced to enact national security laws regarding Hong Kong in its annual plenary session of the National People's Congress, Washington, in turn, reacted strongly by releasing a stringent action plan, which only shows the deepening of their conflict.
China is South Korea’s largest export destination followed by the United States while Seoul and Washington are close diplomatic and security allies. Being sandwiched between the two, the South Korean government has so far tried to convey strategic vagueness. However, it is currently under greater pressure to choose to side with either of them. For example, Washington has recently pushed Seoul to join “Economic Prosperity Network,” proposing to build a new global supply network among trusted security partners except China. South Korean semiconductor exporters are pressed into severing their more-than-10-trillion-won annual trade ties with China’s Huawei. Indeed, South Korea finds itself in a painful dilemma as it has high security dependence on the United States whereas its economy greatly relies on China. All of this reminds Seoul of the economic blow dealt by the THAAD issue.
Nevertheless, it is questionable whether the South Korean government gets fully ready for a new cold war era led by the United States and China. What’s worrying is that it pays attention merely to inter-Korean relations and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to South Korea without any holistic action plan in place regarding global economic, diplomatic and security issues emerging in the post-COVID-19 era. As for Seoul’s de facto withdrawal from the May 24 measures taken following the North's torpedoing of the South's naval ship Cheonan, Washington expressed a feeling of unease by saying that the issue should be considered coupled with progress in denuclearization talks, leaving their relationship uncomfortable.
To better respond to the U.S.-China tensions, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs embarked on a diplomatic strategy meeting last year, which has not happened at all since the turn of the year. In contrast to that, South Korean President Moon Jae-in put emphasis on finding what the two Koreas can do, rather than expecting a great deal from the U.S.-North talks. A thorough review should be conducted of the South Korean government’s diplomatic and economic policy frame to see how it can handle Washington’s push for the E.P.N. initiative while considering its high economic reliance on China or to assume whether additional tension arises when President Xi visits Seoul this year.