It was no wonder that President Joe Biden, only two weeks after his inauguration, declared in his speech before State Department officials that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” The Biden administration chose diplomacy as the principal tool of U.S. foreign and national security policy, integrating all the other elements of national power. Under this approach, economic security is, in and of itself, national security and “foreign policy for the middle class” chimes in well as a compelling slogan.
Putting aside the evaluation of his performance thus far, it seems that President Biden has invested considerable energy in revitalizing U.S. diplomacy, placing the country back at the head of the table and working with its allies and partners on bilateral, regional and global issues.
His administration has put a particular emphasis on rehabilitating trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific alliances and partnerships, as well as on reestablishing the U.S. leadership in global agendas, such as climate change, the global pandemic, democracy and nuclear non-proliferation. It was not without friction, though, as in the case of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the invention of the Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS) partnership.
As strategic competition with China has intensified, much of his multilateral diplomatic capital has been focused on building a united front against China in the political, economic, technological, information and military spheres, as well as in terms of values, system and ideology.
The Indo-Pacific, in particular, has emerged as the foremost frontline of the Sino-American conflict. Since the beginning of the new U.S. administration, we have been witnessing a proliferation of mini-lateral partnerships, such as frequent, high-level trilateral meetings among the U.S., Japan and South Korea, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) at the leaders’ level (U.S., Australia, India and Japan) and the newly formed AUKUS security partnership.
Now, the U.S. is openly floating the idea of forming a new economic framework to comprise key Indo-Pacific nations minus China, to be differentiated from existing circles, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
China is not standing idly by. It is responding in kind, amassing a rival China-led alliance/partnership network. It is renewing diverse layers of official partnerships with countries across the world. What is noteworthy is its enhanced strategic cooperation with its two special partners: Russia and Pakistan.
China has embraced North Korea under Kim Jong-un as a strategic asset once again, after prolonged chilly relations for several years. This past July, the two countries renewed their mutual defense treaty and agreed to elevate their relationship to new heights.
Then come several Southeast Asian countries with a long tradition of ties, including Myanmar. Beijing has also strengthened multilateral mechanisms, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to counter U.S. containment policy.
Many of these countries endorsed China’s position on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong in multilateral forums such as the Human Rights Council and the U.N. General Assembly this year. China is a signatory to the RCEP and smartly applied for the CPTPP, two mega free trade agreements (FTAs) that the U.S. has not joined or rejoined.
This “squid game” does not end here. Next week, President Biden will host the first-ever Summit for Democracy virtually, which will be attended by more than 100 leaders around the world, excluding President Xi. The U.S. is now also leaning toward a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, with some U.S. allies and partners expected to follow suit.
On its part, China is likely to drive wedges between the U.S. and its allies and partners, such as South Korea and some ASEAN members, which they regard as weak links. If it is deemed necessary, China will not shy away from resorting to “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
Against this backdrop, the EU, U.K., Japan and other key players in the world are also intent on upgrading and forming their own coalitions to either survive or turn toward their favor the ongoing reconfiguration of forces.
Unfortunately, Korean diplomacy now is not as strategic or proactive as in the past, especially at a critical juncture when there is a high demand for it to cope with daunting challenges in the region and in the world. It tends to become an adjunct to a narrowly-focused inter-Korean agenda, like the tail wagging the dog.
Due to partisan interests, populist trends and defects inherent in the country’s five-year, single-term presidency, it cannot afford to address the unfolding grand chess game of geopolitics and geo-economics in terms of broader national interests in the longer term. The opportunity cost arising from this situation is high, to put it mildly. Whoever wins the next Korean presidential election must get ready to tackle all those multi-factor equations up front.
During the presidential campaign of 1992, candidate Bill Clinton said, “It is the economy, stupid.” Thirty years later, President Biden declared, “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” It’s high time for presidential candidates in Korea to learn from these lessons and to say that “it’s the diplomacy, stupid,” translating that commitment into real actions for the next five years.
And such diplomacy should not be a compartmentalized diplomacy, but rather an integrated diplomacy mobilizing all tools available, ready to make even hard choices in a timely manner. This is the reason why the recent book titled, “Revitalization of Korean Diplomacy,” can serve as a sobering reminder to many watchers of Korean diplomacy inside and outside of the government, as “the demolition of U.S. diplomacy” did to America watchers.