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[Herald Interview] What US-China rivalry means for South Korea

Expert says balance of individualism, collectivism key to an effective response to COVID-19

US President Donald Trump (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) (AFP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) (AFP-Yonhap)

The coronavirus pandemic, which saw its first known patient in China and its highest death toll in the US, is fueling the intense rivalry between the two nations, as US President Donald Trump blames China for the outbreak and Beijing slams back, rejecting an international inquiry into the source of the pathogen.

International relations experts say the friction between the two countries over the disease is an extension of their chronically sour relations marred by an acrimonious trade dispute.

“The US-China conflict isn’t just about economic dominance, however; it is part of a broader struggle for global hegemony between the two biggest economies, with each side unwilling to step back unconditionally,” Hwang Ji-hwan, who teaches international relations at the University of Seoul, told The Korea Herald.

The winner of the conflict will likely reshape the world order in the coming century, so the feud will not be easy to resolve. Nonetheless, the two economic giants could reach short-term arrangements for their own good, according to Hwang.

“Ten or even five years ago, it would be fair to say the US would lead the reshaping, with others falling in line, but it’s much harder to be definitive now,” the professor said. 

Professor Hwang Ji-hwan
Professor Hwang Ji-hwan

“But clearly, China won’t outcompete the US, which still maintains global leadership, even though that leadership has seen its powers reduced, and its reach undercut.”

Advanced and emerging economies alike are unlikely to recognize China, where citizens have fewer individual liberties, as a leader in the new world order, Hwang said.

China has fewer allies and supporters than the US, which translates into less firepower for the struggle to achieve global leadership, he added.

Meanwhile, the Belt and Road Initiative -- President Xi Jinping’s global campaign to cultivate strategic networks involving infrastructure development and investment west of China -- has met with opposition in some countries on concerns that Beijing is seeking to expand its sphere of influence. 

Those countries have fears of opaque financing that could leave them chained to unsustainable debt, Hwang said, adding that Xi’s initiative is not making China as many friends as he intended.
The international relations specialist said US President Trump’s “America First” agenda likewise embodies Washington’s determination to restore its once unrivaled global leadership and preeminence in parts of Asia, in the face of China’s meteoric economic ascent.
US President Donald Trump (AFP-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (AFP-Yonhap)

“‘Controlling’ the global agenda rather than ‘leading’ it is what defines Trump’s pledge. In that sense, even allies don’t get to talk to America; they are talked to by America,” the expert said.

Under the initiative, domestic priorities dictate foreign affairs, with unilateral action preferred to global cooperation, as illustrated in Trump’s recent skipping of a worldwide fundraising event the European Commission spearheaded to produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

Hwang said if Trump is not reelected, the “America First” platform will likely see some change, but will still undergird US foreign policy because the superpower is keen on recovering the unmatched dominance it once enjoyed.

“No matter who’s in the White House, prioritizing American interests is the absolute mandate now. The only difference between Trump and the others is he chooses to see to it in a more unconventional way,” Hwang said.

When asked about the role of non-Western countries emerging as new key players amid the raging pandemic and the US-China feud, Hwang referred to the Group of 20 countries.

He said the coalition had already expanded its influence since the financial crisis of 2008, when the global economy had to withstand shock waves prompted by select developed economies that proved ineffective in handling the fallout from the crisis.

“Countering the unprecedented pandemic, America and Europe this time have shown shortcomings in their governance that trace their roots to promoting individual liberties,” the professor said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (Yonhap)

One of the reasons behind Korea’s much-praised response to the outbreak, he said, was that it found its own balance between individualism and collectivism and quickly rolled out a multilateral scheme -- widespread testing and intensive contact tracing -- that the government and the public endorsed.

“The Korean people underwent 30 years’ rule of successive authoritarian and democratic rule from the ’60s to the ’90s and learned not to put too much weight on either end of the rights spectrum,” Hwang said.

But, the expert said the anti-virus efforts were greatly brought up to speed by the country’s remarkable capacity to manufacture masks and test kits as needed to cope with the respiratory disease, because hard-hit countries suffered record fatalities due to equipment shortages.

“It’s befitting that we lend a hand to North Korea,” Hwang added.

The North has so far claimed zero infections, but experts widely discredit the assertions, given news of diplomatic mission shutdowns and local news reports detailing quarantine rules and guidelines urging North Koreans to take precautions and not get infected. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)

Pyongyang has yet to respond to Seoul’s offer of cooperation on efforts to contain COVID-19, but Seoul should keep floating the proposal despite the prolonged silence, according to Hwang, who added that successful nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang would usher in inter-Korean exchanges.

“Resuming large-scale inter-Korean projects like the joint Kaesong plants or Kumgangsan tours would surely draw Pyongyang back to the talks, but bypassing international sanctions would be tricky,” Hwang said, referring to the broad UN sanctions against the communist regime.

Smaller projects do little to entice the North, but the South has no better options on the table, he added.

“Pyongyang’s silence signals that the outbreak there isn’t so catastrophic as to threaten leader Kim Jong-un’s grip on power. Otherwise it would have already asked Seoul for help,” he said.

“Regime survival is the country’s mission.”

By Choi Si-young (