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Yoon and South Korea’s Foreign Policy: Switching between Strategic Ambiguity and Strategic Clarity

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, photo released by the People Power Party
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South Korea’s new president will soon be taking charge of the Blue House, as the former president Moon Jae-in will leave office. South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol expressed that he will follow a new foreign policy that will align and work closely with the U.S. Strategist associated with Yoon’s campaign stated this shift as the policy of ‘Strategic clarity.’ The policy proposed by President-elect Yoon stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, who was following a policy of strategic ambiguity under President Moon Jae-in. With the statements of President-elect Yoon during the campaign, some scholars and experts following developments in the Korean peninsula were content with a clearer expression of interest toward the U.S. in Yoon’s Foreign Policy Stance. After the policy announcement by Yoon on closer proximity to the U.S., the PPP (People’s Power Party) candidates were seen as one that would be better for the U.S. policy in the region. The intention of the U.S. even resonated in the Indo-Pacific strategy, specifically concerning the North-East Asian region released by the White House. The two major issues stand apart among many stated in the strategy focused on the northeast Asian region. Firstly ‘build connections within and beyond the region’ to improve relations between South Korea and Japan. The second one was ‘building regional resilience to transnational threats’ through the development of a coherent policy stance towards the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Both the recommendations seem to have been taken positively by the president-elect Yoon based on actions taken by the transition team. There may be some positive developments following soon. President-elect Yoon’s policy group has already visited the U.S and Japan. Yoon has even expressed his intention of improving relations with Japan. In an interview, he expressed his desire to have better relations with Japan, building on convergences that the two countries have in the face of the threat from DPRK. However, another point of contention was mentioned in the U.S Indo-Pacific report, namely the PRC (People’s Republic of China).

President-elect Yoon’s China Policy

President-elect Yoon had stated that he would follow ‘strategic clarity’, but how much of the policy shift he expressed was directed towards China was never clear from his statements. His contentious decision about deploying additional THAAD batteries near Seoul could be a big irk between China-South Korea relations. There are oppositions to the deployment from both citizens against the existing deployed system and experts who say that the THAAD missiles don’t provide any additional deterrence. As we saw in 2016, when under Park’s government, the first THAAD was deployed, the reaction from China was in the form of economic coercion where the domestic population was weaponized as a tool of the state to punish South Korean companies. The Moon administration tried to normalize relations by stating their Three-No’s policy. The issues raised till now were only bilateral as they are restricted to the Korean Peninsula. However, with the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, the world is already moving toward a more polarizing system where states are expected to express their position. South Korea, too has sided clearly on the western side by joining the sanctions regime under the Democratic Moon government, even finding resonance with the Conservative President-elect Yoon. But as stated before, Yoon’s vision of South Korea-China relations is not so clear, as we see in the case of Russia.

One apparent reason is that no state can take on Chinese might; even the U.S. realizes this. After recognizing the increasing Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S has worked closely with its like-minded allies and partner in the region for an open, free and inclusive Indo-Pacific in bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral formations like Quad. Quad comprises the U.S, Japan, Australia, and India. All the member countries share concerns about the rising Chinese military and economic power in the Indo-Pacific region due to respective issues between the member countries and China. The Quad vision is to uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-pacific region. The Moon administration did express its support for grouping like Quad. Even earlier, President-elect Yoon stated his intention to work with Quad (not join). By participating with Quad’s working groups on vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies. In his recent statement, Yoon indicated to positively consider joining Quad if approached but said that he doesn’t think it is happening anytime soon. Yoon had stayed away from expressing any intention to join the Quad immediately. This seems to be going against his policy of ‘strategic clarity.’ The lack of clarity on China is in contrast to his stand on Russia, where the state’s policy is precisely aligned with the U.S.

South Korea shares very cordial and good relations with all the Quad members, except for Japan, with whom relations under the Moon administration saw some downward trajectory due to domestic developments. But the Japan factor is not big enough for Seoul to be puzzled and remain tangled. The lack of interest or, to say, a cautious stance regarding the Question of Quad by South Korea under President-elect Yoon is a curious case of study. Here I would like to address the following questions to understand the balancing act by Yoon. What does South Korea bring to the Quad? And how will the Quad member see South Korea’s application to join the Quad?

South Korea and the curious case of Quad

Firstly, South Korea is a fellow democratic-liberal state in the Indo-Pacific region that upholds the rule of law and international liberal order as a touchstone of a stable international politico-economic system. In Quad parlance, South Korea is a ‘like-minded’ state with which every Quad member shares values and a converging vision for a ‘rules-based’ Indo-Pacific region. Secondly, South Korea has deep strategic interests in an ‘open, free, and inclusive’ Indo-Pacific region as it is intertwined with its export-oriented economy and exclusively the need for a resilient supply chain. As a leading technological innovator in emerging critical sectors like ICTs, AI, and 5G, it becomes incumbent for South Korea to play a more prominent role in shaping the Indo-Pacific region’s geoeconomics and geopolitics. By emphasizing the two points mentioned above, South Korea strengthens the structural capacity of a multipolar Asian regional order instead of the dictates of one country. As a norm influencer and middle power, South Korea also influences the states in south-east asia to take a more proactive stands on issues. Even its role in capacity building in cybersecurity through CAMP and as an arms provider is vital for the region’s stability.

South Korea is an ally of the U.S, a comprehensive strategic partner of Australia, a special strategic partner of India, an important neighboring country for Japan, as expressed by Japanese PM Fumio Kishida. South Korea is perceived as a state whose contribution to the region is positive, and its participation in the global economy is vital.  For all Quad member states, the U.S, Australia, India, and Japan, South Korea is critical to their interests for a stable North-East Asian region and Indo-Pacific, particularly on critical emerging technologies, supply chain, and deterring North Korean belligerence. For Australia and India, South Korea helps modernize and strengthen its military capacity in the face of rising Chinese military threats. India actively deploys South Korean K9-Vajra at LAC with China, and Australia uses South Korean made artillery weapons, radar, and supply vehicles. Even Japan, instead of strenuous relations with South Korea, shares common interests to cooperate in the face of North Korean nuclear brinkmanship and cyberspace. South Korea has already engaged with the Quad framework in Quad-plus format on the issue of addressing COVID-19 early in 2020 with other countries like Vietnam and New Zealand. Irrespective of all the positives for South Korea, its applications to the Quad are almost perfect. There remain some impediments too.

Issues still linger within Quad on the consensus of South Korea. The Japanese negative reaction to South Korea joining G7 could hint at its response if South Korea applied for the Quad membership application. Japan thinks South Korea’s weak stand against China and its fluctuating policy on North Korea with different administrations could prove a disaster for the Quad. In addition, the bilateral relations and domestic constrain between Japan and South Korea may hinder Quad’s response. We saw this happening between India and Pakistan in SAARC, which eventually led to SAARC’s irrelevance in South Asia. Even India would like to see a more consistent South Korea stand towards issues that concern its interests, particularly on the China question. India still remembers Australia backtracking on China. However, that hasn’t deterred India from developing better relations with Australia. The U.S would welcome it if South Korea joined the Quad; as the saying goes, All hands-on deck would be better. This would also help to broaden the security perspective by bringing in subjects that find consensus among all Quad members, such as the denuclearization of North Korea. Any approach that forms a broader consensus on North Korea in the region would help pressure China, giving tacit support to the regime in Pyongyang.

South Korea Foreign Policy approach under President-elect Yoon remains a work in progress as he still hasn’t shifted to the Blue House. Yoon’s foreign policy stance of Strategic Clarity has found resonance on the subject of the west’s action toward Russia. However, it is yet to be seen whether his approach would replicate itself in the case of China. President-elect Yoon’s intentions, as expressed on working closely with the U.S., may not result in some kind of reaction as we have seen in the case of Russia. Yoon’s policy towards China will not be similar to Russia’s as many factors overshadow this relationship. These factors include geographical proximity, economic interdependence, North Korea, and strategic stability in the North-East Asian region. A policy similar to President Moon may not be an accurate way to proceed again. Still, one that changes dramatically may also present way more challenges to South Korea than it could handle in the current uncertain global economic scenario. Therefore, the way to proceed should be to strengthen relations with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the Quad members. At the same time, it is vital to engage with the working groups of the Quad to support non-conventional security issues, like Climate Change, Vaccines, and tech. The new administration’s focus should be to ensure strategic stability of the Indo-Pacific region in a manner that maneuvers tactical obstacles presented by China and South Korean interlinkages.       

Abhishek Sharma is a Doctoral Student in Korean Studies under the Department of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi. He is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy

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Assad’s visit to China: Breaking diplomatic isolation and rebuilding Syria

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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Hangzhou, capital city of east China's Zhejiang Province, Sept. 22, 2023. (Xinhua/Yao Dawei)

The visit of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to China to participate in the opening of the Asian Games came as a serious step to try to break the diplomatic isolation from Syria.  Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” was keen to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping in the city of Hangzhou in eastern China, where the Asian Games are being held, as this was the Syrian president’s first visit to China since 2004.  According to the Syrian regime’s Al-Watan newspaper, Al-Assad will attend the launch ceremony of the (nineteenth edition) of the Asian Games, which will open on September 23, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.  This visit to Bashar al-Assad reflects the great coordination between Moscow and Beijing, as it is likely that the Russians pushed for this visit at this precise time.  Perhaps, through his visit to China, Bashar al-Assad is trying to deliver a specific message about the start of “international legitimization” of his regime.  Syria’s accession to the Belt and Road Initiative in January 2022 is an indication of the possibility of implementing vital Chinese projects, especially since it is located between Iraq and Turkey, making it a vital corridor for land routes towards Europe.

 Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China also comes in an attempt to attract it to reconstruction projects in the affected areas in Syria, as China has the ability to complete reconstruction infrastructure in residential and civilian areas with exceptional speed. This is the same as what the Chinese ambassador to Syria “Shi Hongwei” announced in August 2023, that “Chinese companies are actively involved in reconstruction projects in Syria”. The war in Syria led to massive destruction of infrastructure and the destruction of many vital sectors of the Syrian economy, including oil, while the Syrian government is subject to harsh international sanctions.  We find that the Chinese side has shown great interest in the reconstruction projects in Surba, such as the presence of more than a thousand Chinese companies to participate in (the first trade exhibition on Syrian reconstruction projects in Beijing), while they pledged investments estimated at two billion dollars.

  China played an active role through diplomatic movements in Syria, as it participated in the “Astana” process, and obstructed Security Council resolutions related to Syria, to confirm its position in support of Damascus, using its veto power more than once in the Security Council, against resolutions considered to be a blow to Assad’s “legitimacy”.  In September 2017, the Syrian regime classified China, along with Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would give priority to reconstruction projects. Therefore, Al-Assad affirmed during his meeting with Chinese President “Xi Jinping” that: “this visit is important in terms of its timing and circumstances, as a multipolar world is being formed today that will restore balance and stability to the world, and it is the duty of all of us to seize this moment for the sake of a bright and promising future”.

  According to my analysis, China follows the policy of “breaking diplomatic isolation on presidents and countries against which America is angry”, so the visit of “Bashar al-Assad” comes within a series of visits that China witnessed during the current year in 2023, to presidents who are isolated internationally by the United States of America, such as: Venezuelan President “Nicolas  Maduro”, the Iranian President ”Ibrahim Raisi”, and the Belarusian “Alexander Lukashenko”.

  China is also keen to conduct interviews in its newspapers and official websites affiliated with the ruling Communist Party with many presidents and officials of countries isolated internationally and diplomatically by the United States of America and the West, such as the Chinese keenness to conduct and publish an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister “Faisal Mekdad” on September 21, 2023, and the Chinese reviewed his statements, saying that “the United States of America has plundered oil, natural gas, and other resources from Syria, causing losses worth $115 billion”. The Chinese newspaper “Global Times”, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, also focused on the United States’ greater role in the deterioration of “Syria from stability to chaos” . The Chinese newspaper compared this to China’s policy, which constantly calls for peaceful dialogue and opposes “foreign interference” .

   Through his visit to China, Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” is trying to lay the foundations for joint cooperation between China and Syria within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, with full Chinese support for Syria’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. China has always affirmed its firm support for Syria’s efforts against foreign interference, with the Chinese rejection of the stationing of illegal forces on Syrian territory. China is also making great efforts with many countries to lift sanctions and the illegal economic blockade on the Syrian people, in addition to Chinese support for building Syrian capabilities in the field of combating terrorism. Knowing that despite its alliance with President “Bashar Al-Assad”, China did not participate in supporting him militarily, but it used the right of criticism to obstruct the passage of resolutions against him in the Security Council.

   We can reach an important conclusion that Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China has a greater political track, and that Beijing is trying to play a greater role in the issue of resolving conflicts or to have a greater actual role in negotiations related to sensitive issues in the region. The implications of Assad’s visit to China are also politically significant, as China is trying to play a greater political role in the region, as China has been trying since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the emergence of a vacuum in the Middle East as a result of the decline of Russian influence due to its preoccupation with the war, so Beijing is trying to expand in the Middle East and Africa. 

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China’s Inclusive Diplomacy for Global Cooperation

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President Xi Jinping’s address at the recently held 2023 CIFTIS resonates as a powerful call for inclusive development and cooperation in the services trade sector. China’s commitment to expanding market access, increasing connectivity, and aligning policies with global standards demonstrates its commitment to ensuring a level playing field for all nations.

This commitment extends across different sectors, including telecommunications, tourism, law, vocational examinations, and the larger services sector. President Xi’s address emphasized China’s intention to expand broader, broaden market access, and support inclusive development in the services trade sector. His sentiments resonate with the global world as China seeks to create new prospects for openness, cooperation, and economic equality.

Over the last few decades, the services trade landscape has changed drastically, becoming an essential component of international business. However, this expansion has not been uniform, with developing countries frequently encountering difficulties such as limited market access, complex rules, and capacity limits that prevent them from fully participating in international services trade.

Notably, China is committed to promoting inclusive growth in the services trade sector. It assured of taking continuing steps to accelerate Chinese modernization through high-quality development, to open up new avenues for openness and collaboration for all countries.

Through openness, cooperation, innovation, and shared services, China emphasized the need for inclusive growth and connectivity. Recognizing that a rising tide in services trade should raise all boats, particularly those from nations with limited resources, China has launched a series of ground-breaking initiatives. Additionally, China is actively expanding its network of high-standard free trade areas, participating in negotiations on the negative list for trade in services and investment.

China is setting an example by aligning its policies with international standards. President Xi highlighted in his speech that national integrated demonstration zones for increased openness in the services sector, suitable pilot free trade zones, and free trade ports will be at the forefront of aligning policies with high-standard international economic and trade regulations. These zones demonstrate China’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere conducive to international cooperation and growth.

Real-world examples vividly demonstrate the practical impact of China’s assistance to developing countries in the services trade. China’s investments in transport infrastructure, such as the Standard Gauge Railway, have considerably facilitated the flow of goods and people in Kenya, boosting the services sector indirectly.

Pakistan’s experience with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is similar, with improved physical connectivity catalyzing the expansion of digital services and e-commerce. Various infrastructure developments in Indonesia have resulted in spectacular advances, opening up new potential for services trade.

Ethiopia, too, has reaped the benefits of China’s commitment, with active participation in industrial parks reviving the services sector, which includes logistics, banking, and education. These real-life success stories highlight China’s critical role in facilitating the expansion and development of services trade in developing countries.

China’s commitment to capacity building and technical aid is critical in its support for developing countries in the services trade. China provides these countries with the knowledge and skills they need to participate effectively in the services trade by offering specialized programs. Furthermore, China’s significant investments in infrastructure projects such as ports, logistical hubs, and telecommunications networks play an important role in facilitating the smooth flow of services.

Furthermore, China’s commitment to reducing entry barriers and optimizing regulations indicates the country’s persistent commitment to creating an equitable environment. This approach not only promotes equitable possibilities but also simplifies market access, making it easier for developing countries to export their services to China’s enormous and dynamic market.

Furthermore, China gives significant financial support in the form of loans and grants for service trade-related initiatives, recognizing the financial problems that many developing countries confront. This financial assistance enables nations to overcome economic challenges and invest in the expansion and improvement of their service sectors, thereby encouraging economic equality and cooperation.

As the world continues to evolve, services trade will play an increasingly important role in global economic growth, and China’s leadership in this realm is helping to shape a future where opportunities are shared, disparities are reduced, and cooperation knows no bounds. It is a vision worthy of appreciation and support since it is consistent with the ideals of justice and equality, moving the globe closer to a more linked and wealthy global community.

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China’s Multilateral Engagement and Constructive Role in the G20



Image source: X @narendramodi

The recent G20 Summit in India has once again taken center stage, attracting global attention as it gathered together leaders and delegates from the world’s 20 most powerful economies. This high-profile event was significant in shaping international relations and addressing serious global concerns due to its broad presence and crucial talks. This high-stakes gathering occurs at a pivotal juncture, marked by escalating divisions among major powers on a multitude of pressing global issues, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, global economic recovery, food security, and climate change.

The recent inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member within the G20 serves as a positive signal, signifying consensus among major economies. However, lurking concerns persist about the formidable challenges involved in achieving unity and issuing a joint declaration in the midst of these complex global dynamics.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s opening remarks at the 18th G20 Summit in New Delhi resonate as he underscores the paramount importance of unity and collaboration among G20 member nations. He emphasizes the critical need for effective coordination of macroeconomic policies to restore hope and generate momentum for long-term economic growth.

 Premier Li eloquently highlights the interconnectedness of humanity’s destiny and calls upon nations to demonstrate mutual respect, seek common ground while momentarily setting aside differences, and work tirelessly towards peaceful coexistence. In a world characterized by profound crises and shared hardships, he aptly observes that no nation can thrive in isolation. Therefore, the only plausible pathways for guiding humanity forward are those rooted in cooperation and harmony.

The G20, originally established to navigate global financial crises and forge collective strategies for addressing economic challenges while fostering global economic development, has, regrettably, experienced a decline in consensus and a rise in differences among major powers. This shift has been particularly evident since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and the United States’ strategy of containment against China. Consequently, the G20 is increasingly devolving into a forum marked by discord, rather than the once-productive and constructive multilateral mechanism it was intended to be.

Nevertheless, the G20 retains its significance as a pivotal forum for international collaboration in confronting global challenges. With the increasing contributions of developing nations like China, India, and African countries, the voices within the G20 have diversified, no longer solely dominated by Western perspectives. As a response, the United States seeks to regain control of the multilateral process to further its agenda of great power competition. However, this approach is unlikely to be warmly received by the broader international community.

China remains steadfast in its commitment to deepen reforms and open up further to foster high-quality development and its unique brand of modernization. China views itself as a catalyst for additional momentum in global economic recovery and sustainable development. China stands ready to collaborate with all stakeholders to contribute to the well-being of our shared Earth, our common home, and the future of humanity. Despite Western media’s attempts to sensationalize China’s stance and magnify perceived differences, China continues to play a constructive role within the G20, dedicated to its multilateral mission.

To ensure that the G20 remains a platform focused on global governance rather than being overshadowed by geopolitical conflicts, China remains determined to fulfill its constructive role within the group, regardless of attempts by Western powers to politicize the mechanism. China’s efforts have expanded the G20 to include the African Union, effectively transforming it into the “G21.” China was the first nation to endorse African Union membership in the G20 and advocates for the African Union to assume an even more significant role in international governance.

The growing divisions and disputes within the G20 have eroded its effectiveness as a platform for addressing global challenges. These divisions, primarily driven by American actions and policies, have spawned tensions with far-reaching global implications, from the Ukraine crisis to escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. These developments underscore the critical role the G20 plays in promoting cooperation and unity.

Amid the current geopolitical landscape characterized by major powers’ divisions, tensions have surged, resonating globally and causing ripple effects. From the Ukraine crisis to tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, the significance of the G20’s role in fostering cooperation and unity cannot be overstated.

All G20 member nations must recognize the urgent imperative of cooperation in building a world that is safer, more prosperous, and increasingly peaceful. Given the global challenges that transcend narrow national interests, effective responses can only be crafted through international cooperation. The G20 stands as a pivotal arena for this cooperation, with China’s positive contribution being indispensable in promoting cohesion.

Despite Western media’s efforts to sensationalize China’s position and magnify perceived gaps, China remains a committed multilateral partner within the G20, dedicated to constructive engagement. The G20 continues to serve as a critical platform for addressing global concerns, fostering unity, and promoting international collaboration. As the world grapples with intricate issues, it remains imperative that nations adhere to the principles of multilateralism and collaborate relentlessly to secure a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable future for all.

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