At Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum in Beijing back in 2019, the former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mentioned that the US and China were still in the “foothills of the New Cold War,” which basically meant that we had not entered it yet. From my personal view, there must be a few objective criteria before determine that the New Cold War has begun: Will Biden’s 4 years also present Trump-ish foreign policies? Will China become more opaque and assertive? Is the international community losing its multilateral mechanism and function? Will the powers gather around two great pillars and form a mutual hostility? Will the ideological and cultural conflict float up to the surface? Are we stepping into the era of anti-globalization or non-globalization? We will be able to convince ourselves that we are standing in the middle of the New Cold War only after we can clearly answer all these questions.
Despite the heated US-China competition, I still believe the relationship is about 70 percent competitive and 30 cooperative. However, Europe is in a time of critical trouble, when it is one of the two poles in the United States’ international strategy, along with the Indo-Pacific. We are witnessing indexes that accord with the New Cold War. Although China is reluctant to even use the expression “Indo-Pacific,” and is using the term “Asia-Pacific,” how is the Indo-Pacific doing? As the storm of New Cold War approaches, what strategic decisions is China making? Additionally, as the Korean Peninsula is one of China’s core regions in its national strategy, how is China interpreting and planning its relations with both South and North Koreas? This discussion invites professor Zhu Feng, who is the Director of Institute of International Relations in Nanjing University. He has been researching the above issues for a very long time. One of his prominent publications was America, China and The Struggle for the World Order, co-edited with professor G. John Ikenbery and professor Wang Jisi in 2015.
Hwang: What does the Ukraine war indicate in terms of the international order? Are we heading to the New Cold War, or maybe toward multipolarity?
Zhu: The Ukraine war is an unexpected subversion of the international order which has originated in the collapse of Soviet Union and embedded on globalization. Despite a lot of uncertainties with the endgame of the war in Ukraine, there are a couple of things we could confirm from now on: the first is that an iron curtain is descending once again on Europe, and there is no way that Russia and the EU can converge economically and politically. Instead Europe would be divided into two separate parts with fewer interactions. It is the EU which is heading toward “decoupling” from Russia, and the others are Russia and its Eurasian brothers like Belarus. Furthermore, geopolitical tensions will last for years, as the US and Europe would never allow Russia to escape charges for war crimes and compensation to Ukraine for its reconstruction. In this regard, there is no hope that Ukraine war will eventually end in diplomatic concessions between Russia and the West. The New Cold War is becoming a ruthless reality in the Europe. But I don’t think that a new Cold War could extend into the Asia-Pacific. The scathing reality is that China has no interest in siding with Moscow to engage in a new Cold War. It would be fatally detrimental to China’s national interests. Furthermore, exclusion of Russia from the European community would keep Moscow isolated and damage its innovation of science, education and national governance. I am quite skeptical of the factual implications for Russia of the Ukraine war. Will it be more autocratic, or less stable due to growing domestic dissatisfaction? Anyway, post-Ukraine-war Russia might revert to a Stalinist model, and its internal tensions would sour. That sort of Russia is truly not what Chinese want to see. And a Russia in an uncertain transition could also be less helpful and even disruptive to the regional security in East Asia.
Hwang: What implication does it have for China’s national strategy?
Zhu: The Ukraine war has given an unexpected thrust to China’s national strategy. Beijing and Moscow relations have been warming in the past 10 years, and Joint Declaration of Feb. 4 between Putin and Xi might signal new intimacy between two countries. But ironically China did not have any idea of the upcoming war program by President Putin. Otherwise, China needed to step back from the high profile of Putin-Xi summit early February. Actually Beijing’s attempt to build up strategic ties with Moscow is simply based on an idea that China and Russia could team up against hegemonic United States, rather than threaten or harm any European states. China has been Ukraine’s biggest trade partner since 2016, and Kiev plays a key role in China’s push for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Train connections throughout China to Europe go through Ukraine. Sadly, the Ukraine war has delayed China’s BRI project to link China’s Chongqing and Amsterdam, and suddenly put a halt to Chinese trading volume of more than $11 billion annually with Ukraine. Furthermore, Beijing’s reluctance to part with Moscow suffers a lot of criticism from the European community, and is likely to damage China-European political and economic relations. Last year, the EU regained its position as China’s biggest trading partner. To be honest, the Ukraine war’s negative effect on China’s national strategy is immense.
Hwang: Is the Ukraine war making the US-China relations more competitive -- or can it be an opportunity for cooperation?
Zhu: The Ukraine war of course made China-US relations more competitive and volatile. The reasons behind that are multiple. First of all, the US desperately hopes China will distance itself from the Moscow, as Washington is highly aware that China might be the biggest backup behind Putin’s Russia if the flurries of western sanctions do not weaken Russia as much as they can. Thus, Washington has seriously warned China not to provide Putin government with any military and financial assistance. If not, the US openly threatens to take heavy-handed action against China immediately. And second, American high-ranking officials remind China that the Taiwan issue could risk turning into an Asian version of the Ukraine war if Beijing is intent on militarily coercing Taiwan back. It means that Taiwan is a time-bomb for “Ukraine” in Asia. But Beijing fully rejects such analogy, as it makes it clear that Taiwan is not a sovereign state as Ukraine is, and use of force against Taiwan’s independent move is legitimate according to China’s domestic legislature. But Washington is apparently taking the opposite view by assuming that the US would defend Taiwan from China’s military coercion. Last but not least, the Biden administration stresses that the main purpose of American global security endorsement is to lead a “democratic bloc” in the world to confront the “authoritarian bloc” headed by China and Russia. The Ukraine war seems proven for that proposition. Of course, China fully disagrees with such labelling by the US. Expectably the Ukraine war now is actually exacerbating Beijing-Washington relations.
Hwang: When it comes to the Korea-China relations, what are the common points and differences between Moon Jae-in and Yoon Seok-yeol’s government?
Zhu: To envision the Yoon Administration’s China’s policy, I am confident that there would hardly be a big distraction and even remarkable divergence from his predecessor. President Moon insists that the Korea-US alliance is definitely working on the Korea Peninsula-centered military and security collaboration, while President Yoon unambiguously emphasizes his policy priority of fully enhancing South Korea’s military alliance with the US. Therefore, many Chinese are suspicious that President Yoon would finally choose sides between Beijing and Washington and hereby decisively lean toward the US amid their great power competition. Yes, I believe that the Yoon Administration would bet more on Korea-US military cooperation, and push deeper within American arms-holding. But it does not automatically mean that the Yoon Administration would pursue an anti-China, or confronting China, policy reorientation. Keeping the delicate balance between the US and China would serve Korea’s interests best. Nevertheless, considering the diplomatic stalemate between the South and North on the peninsula, the Chinese should adopt a understanding view on President Yoon’s policy option to seek closer ties with Washington. Even more missile defense deployment in South Korea would not be much harmful to Chinese strategic striking capability, considering the new technology proceeding so fascinatingly. But Korea should be aware of what China is truly watchful of. To be honest, staying out of the Quad is a fundamental requirement for Beijing. Seoul embracing the Quad will definitely upset China, as it has been defined as a rudimentary plan to establish an Asian version of NATO. Beijing of course is not willing to see China-Korea relations harmed by a contentious military camp.
Hwang: During the campaign, Yoon mentioned that China does not respect Korea. How do you see his remarks?
Zhu: I think such a complaint is quite misleading. He referred to a couple of things, such as China’s selected commercial sanctions on Seoul in 2015, when President Park Gen-hye decided to authorize missile defense deployment in South Korea, and a local media outlet in China stupidly noting that Kimchi originated in China. But personally, I consider that such arguments might not ease down between the two neighbors. Beijing’s selected sanction after missile defense deployment also caused a lot of debate in China. To be honest, I was one of a few Chinese scholars who did not back any retaliation to missile defense disputes because I assumed that any retaliation would cause unpredictable reactions from South Korea. Thus President Yoon has this sort of impression, and even his open expression of his desire for China’s respect are understandable. But hopefully, President Yoon will abandon such bad detachments. Meanwhile, Beijing should be equally aware of Koreans’ China psychology. Actually no matter how China and Korea solidify their ties, mutual respect and benign accommodation are absolutely necessary.
Hwang: Is there anything you consider the new Korean government should be discreet about besides THAAD in its policies towards China?
Zhu: I just picked up on the Quad issue. Additionally, I would really love to see Beijing and Seoul reinforce their communication and dialogue on how we could break the blackmail from Pyongyang on inter-Korea relations by endless provocations in the region by launching missile tests. Particularly, we need work together, hand in hand, to push for the restoration of nuclear disarmament talks which have been stuck in a quagmire for more than a decade. Nuclear dismantlement and peaceful engagement of the two Koreas serve China’s long-haul interests. On the other hand, China could be a trustable partner for South Korea to engage North Korea and seek normalization of inter-Korea relations. The Six Party Talks formula has proven to be the only workable mechanism to achieve a periodic breakthrough in denuclearizing North Korea. In addition, I always assume that the best way to break down the North’s hard shell and change its nuclear aspirations and belligerent policies is to firmly but gradually draw North Korea out of its isolation. Beijing and Seoul could have a lot of common ground to stand on, and a lot of options we could stand for.
Hwang: As seen in President Xi and President Yoon’s phone call and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan’s attendance at Yoon’s inauguration ceremony, China’s efforts to Korea’s new government seem to be clear. What are the reasons behind this?
Zhu: The most important reason is that South Korea is a country that deserves Chinese respect and emphasis. Both Beijing and Seoul have tremendously changed in the past decades. Beijing should encourage Seoul to exploit its diplomatic activism as a leading middle power, and play a constructive role to mitigate regional security tensions and smartly soften the great power competition between Beijing and Washington. Actually, South Korea is a leading trading partner and import source of high-tech parts. China is Seoul’s biggest trading partner. No one could deny the reality that Beijing and Seoul are increasingly and fundamentally indispensable on almost all fronts. But the surging challenge is that the Biden administration is desperately heading toward “de-coupling” from China, even with supply-chain restructuring. The US is always bent on a “chip alliance” with Japan, Korea and Taiwan to insulate China from acquiring a high-tech semiconductor industry. The purpose of the US is to dampen China’s innovative competition and dwarf Beijing’s efforts to catch-up with the US in terms of power. But such actions would inevitably bring a new Cold War to regional and global supply chains. It is horribly against the interests of Seoul and Beijing. President Yoon should pass through such tests from Beijing’s “pull” and Wasington’s “push.” Globalization and rules-based openness are keystones of East Asia’s economic sustainable growth.
Hwang: We are greeting the 30th anniversary of Korea-China relations. How do you anticipate the further improvement of this relationship? What sort of cooperation do you recommend?
Zhu: this year marks the 30th anniversary of Korea-China relations. Simply looking back and taking a quick glimpse of our ties during that time, I have to say that it has been a history-changing 30 years, and history-remaking 30 years. Now our societal penetration has never been stronger and more powerful. Cross-border travel also reached a historical height. China and Korea have become so interdependent. We love and respect each other. On the other hand, Korea is a leading force on how China could finish off its domestic transition. Both of us are equally convinced that liberty, democracy and prosperity are the underlying factors for a country to ensure people’s happiness. Looking to the future, Chinese and Koreans need to respect each other, compliment each other and match each other. Even if what happens is even irritating, we are fated to stick to each other forever.
Hwang: Kim Jong-un emphasized North Korea’s fundamental interest at the celebration of the 90th anniversary of North Korea’s army.
Zhu: North Korea’s new militarist movement is worth of noticing. In the past 30 years, the country and its leadership have remained intact and unchanged. The family control-centered power system, personality cult-based ideology and persistent economic and social lockdown from the outside actually means Pyongyang never exiting the Cold War. The Ukraine war and China-US strategic competition seem to revitalize N. Korea’s cold war mentality. It wishes that great power rivalry would force Beijing and Moscow to take it in their arms once again. That’s what North Korea truly wants. But I have to say it is a miscalculation by North Korea. 30 years ago, when Beijing decided to brush off Pyongyang’s opposition to normalizing relations with the South, Beijing has made the strategic decision already -- China chooses the South over the North in pursuit of China’s national interests. Now and in future, nothing would detach it from this strategic decision.
Hwang: President Yoon stressed the substantial denuclearization in his inauguration speech. How can the term “substantial” be interpreted from China’s perspective?
Zhu: “Substantial denuclearization” definitely means, in my understanding, a full, irreversible and complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea. It has been clearly declared in the Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks in 2005. Such principled consensus should be insisted on without any condition. But mapping out the path to realize “substantial denuclearization” needs bilateral and multilateral cooperation and coordination. China and Korea now are working on providing COVID-19 assistance to the North. Engaging North Korea, rather than perpetually sanctioning and pressuring it, remains a significant option to change North Korea.Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation and a member of the Presidential Committee on Policy and Planning. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan. -- Ed.
By Choi He-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org