President Moon Jae-in had his first phone conversation in eight months with Chinese president Xi Jinping on Tuesday evening. We cannot find fault with our president’s communicating with his Chinese counterpart given China’s importance as our largest trade partner and a crucial neighbor in Northeast Asia. The problem is the timing of the talks — and the stealthy motives of China behind the phone conversation.
As the Blue House said, Moon is expected to have his first phone conversation with new U.S. President Joe Biden pretty soon. A first contact via phone with a new head of state carries diplomatic implications, and timing is important. The Moon-Xi phone conversation took place ahead of Moon’s scheduled phone conservation with the U.S. president after Seoul accepted Beijing’s demand for the phone conversation. Moreover, there were no urgent issues to be addressed between Seoul and Beijing, as a Blue House official branded the phone conversation a talk to “exchange New Year’s greetings.”
It doesn’t take a Henry Kissinger to guess what China sought to achieve through the phone conversation. In a virtual speech Monday to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi warned against the possibility of a world in division and confrontation, the return to a new Cold War. A day after the address, Xi chose to talk with Moon on the phone. We cannot shake the suspicion that the Chinese leader called Moon to warn against Korea joining the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China’s rise. The evidence seems clear. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post linked Xi’s call to the need for Beijing to thwart an anti-China alliance being pursued by the new U.S. administration.
China’s domestic press highlighted Moon’s remarks praising Xi’s accomplishments. Moon reportedly mentioned “China’s ever-growing global stature and influence” and “an important step China has taken to realize its goals for the second 100 years.” The “second 100 years” represents China’s dream to become a superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Xi’s remarks could be rhetoric, but the nuance is important too. On a state visit to Beijing after his election as president, Moon compared China to “a big mountain” while describing Korea as a “small one.” He also provoked controversy by stressing that Korea and China share a common destiny.
Korea’s diplomatic leverage is shrinking fast amid the heated race for hegemony between the United States and China. Washington’s concerns grow whenever Seoul takes a pro-China stance on international issues. In the meantime, China played very tough with Korea in recent years, as seen in its economic retaliations for Seoul’s decision to deploy a U.S.-led anti-missile system. When a country faces tough times, its leader must demonstrate wisdom. Frivolous words and actions at a critical moment can exact a heavy price from Korea.
The Moon administration must respect the decades old alliance with Washington and effectively pursue a win-win strategy toward China on a case by case basis. With not much time left before his term ends in 2022, Moon must prove his ability to tackle that challenge for the country’s sake.