Seoul, South Korea – During campaigning in South Korea’s presidential election, Yoon Suk-yeol promised to strike a clear path in his country’s long-running dilemma over how to balance relations with the United States and China.
With the two global superpowers jostling for economic and military supremacy in Asia, the candidate for the conservative People Power Party pledged to decisively side with its security ally the US, even if it risked South Korea’s crucial trade relationship with China.
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Yoon said he would go as far as to expand the presence of a US missile defence system called THAAD in South Korea, which sparked costly unofficial sanctions on South Korean goods and culture by China and set off years of frosty relations.
Only weeks after taking office on May 10, Yoon will see his loyalties tested in his own back yard on Friday, when US President Joe Biden visits Seoul as part of a trip to Asia that also includes Japan, another US ally.
Biden’s visit comes as global trade is facing pressure from more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions to energy and food supply chains due to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
China is by far South Korea’s largest trading partner, taking more than one-quarter of its exports, and Seoul relies on its massive neighbour to power key industries such as chips and autos. South Korea also has a comprehensive security alliance with the US that dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War. The country still hosts approximately 28,000 American troops on its soil.
On the eve of his first meeting with Biden, Yoon, a former prosecutor with no political experience prior to becoming president, appears to be quickly learning just how difficult it is for the leader of an export-dependent, mid-sized Asia Pacific country to balance trade, security and diplomatic priorities at a time of growing rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.
Though he talked tough on China before taking office, Yoon’s early actions as president suggest he has reckoned with the need to balance South Korea’s alliance with the US with its trade reliance on China. Notably, he appears to have walked back his attention-grabbing election campaign promise to deploy additional THAAD batteries in South Korea, with the pledge omitted from a list of governance tasks recently released by his office.
He also held phone talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before taking office, during which the two leaders exchanged cordial statements about bilateral relations. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan travelled to Seoul to attend Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, and before his trip, China’s foreign ministry described the countries as “close neighbours” and “important cooperation partners”.
While in Seoul, Wang conveyed a letter from Xi inviting Yoon to make an official visit to China.
Both sides have an incentive to maintain the robust bilateral trade of recent years. Last year, South Korea’s exports to China rose more than 20 percent, driven by brisk shipments of semiconductors and steel.
In April, with major Chinese cities under lockdown due to COVID-19, shipments declined 3.4 percent from a year earlier after gaining 16.6 percent in March, according to the South Korean trade ministry.
In his dealings with China, Yoon is likely to seek to navigate these economic headwinds while being careful not to be seen as taking Beijing’s side over Washington.
“Increasing US-China rivalry puts Korea, and many Southeast Asian countries, in a difficult position,” Erik Mobrand, a political scientist at Seoul National University, told Al Jazeera. “The question is, if Yoon’s position on China brings economic retaliation, how does he respond to that?”
“It is one thing to talk tough on China while campaigning,” Mobrand added. “It is another to make a statement or take action as president and face the possibility of responses from China.”
Poll data indicates a souring of public opinion on China, particularly among young people, who as voters were a coveted demographic in the March presidential election.
In a survey carried out by current affairs magazine Sisain and pollster Hankook Research in June, just 26 percent of respondents had warm feelings towards China, compared with 57 percent who felt warmly towards the US.
Among the reasons for their unfavourable impression, respondents pointed to South Korea’s problem with air pollution – which many South Koreans blame on poorly regulated carbon-emitting factories in China – Beijing’s slow response in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in South Korean waters.
In the closely fought election, Yoon appeared to deliberately tap into this negativity with the hope of mobilising voters.
“Yoon’s emphasis on a forceful diplomatic approach to China reflects the current situation where the South Korean public’s impression of China is very negative,” Shin Jung-seung, a former South Korean ambassador to China, told Al Jazeera.
“The emphasis on the alliance with the US is inevitable at a time when security concerns, like the North Korean nuclear threat and the war in Ukraine, are growing. But that doesn’t mean that Yoon will neglect relations with China.”
Cooperation on trade and infrastructure
While in Seoul, Biden could seek a commitment from Yoon to have South Korea join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a proposed US-led body that would facilitate cooperation on trade and infrastructure between the US and Asia. South Korea is among the countries expected to take part, along with Japan, Australia and others.
Though the Biden administration has not yet offered a clear explanation of the specific functions of the IPEF, analysts have argued that the goal of the body is to help the US counter growing Chinese economic clout in Asia.
In comments to South Korea’s legislature on Monday, Yoon indicated that he will discuss the IPEF during Biden’s visit and that he is in favour of South Korea joining. On Wednesday, the presidential Blue House confirmed that Yoon will virtually attend a summit in Tokyo next week where Biden will formally launch the initiative.
Biden’s trip will therefore require careful messaging from Yoon as he attempts to balance relations with Washington and Beijing, but is also a chance for the new South Korean leader to make good on promises he made on the campaign trail.
“Yoon wants to grow the US-South Korea alliance and make it more comprehensive, which means having a greater interest in the Indo-Pacific and a greater connection in selected areas, such as COVID or supply chain resilience,” Mason Richey, a professor of politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, told Al Jazeera.
“Yoon will need to back up this policy preference when Biden comes to the region.”