Uniting with Europe for the Sino-U.S. war Lee Jae-seung The author is a professor of international studies at Korea University and head of the Ilmin International Relations Institute. In mid-September, prominent figures from Europe, the United States, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and other countries flocked to Villa La Collina — the summer residence of the first West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) — at Lake Como, northern Italy. In a Global Strategic Advisory Group meeting hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, distinguished guests, including scholars, held a heated debate over the regrouping of allies and rivals from European perspectives amid the fast reshaping of the world order. European and American members of the advisory group emphasized even stronger cooperation among countries sharing same values such as democracy and the rule of law. But representatives of the non-Western world championed pragmatism, upholding their own interests over the values the West “compels them to accept.” Placing a priority on so-called “value diplomacy” appeared to be the standard for dividing the world into the West and the non-Western countries dubbed the “Global South.” Where is Korea placed between the two? The answer came easier than expected. To them, Korea was a member of the “West.” In terms of economic size or diplomatic policy, Korea’s world view is not so detached from that of the United States, Europe and Japan. No one in the meeting raised doubts about Korea being a member of the West. At first glance, Korea’s unripe politics — as exemplified by a number of immature politicians and never-ending incidents — may justify self-doubt. But in the eyes of foreign countries, Korea has already become a member of the West, and they demand it play its due role. In that sense, international issues Europe faces today are basically no different from Korea’s. At the center of their woes is China. Both Europe and Korea are struggling to find a way to survive the endless Sino-U.S. hegemony war and strike a balance between value-based diplomacy and practical diplomacy in the face of their own political and economic dilemmas. Nearly all countries pursue practical diplomacy with China, given its massive economic power and market size. If a country severs economic relations with China, they must endure immense risks on the international stage. The United States is on a crusade to rebuild global supply chains and strengthen its economic security, and Europe is being pressured to join the United States-led global order. Everyone, including Korea, is closely observing one another to determine the appropriate level of their economic relations with China. Europe’s economic ties with China have changed over the past few years. After pointing to Europe as the western end of its Belt and Road Initiative in the 2010s, China promised colossal investment in the continent. China even launched the “16+1” framework targeting Central and Eastern Europe and Balkan states — and forced their leaders to flank Chinese President Xi Jinping for a photo op. Western Europe and the European Union (EU) were stirred. After unveiling the Connectivity Strategy 2.0 in 2018, the EU started to contain China and move eastward at the same time. But in 2023, Europe’s China dream took a sudden turn in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war and the deepening Sino-U.S. conflict. After Chinese investments did not come in, countries in Central and Eastern Europe quickly moved to distance themselves from China. Those countries with bitter memories of the old Soviet days reinforced their relations with the United States and NATO rather than with China after Beijing supported Moscow in the war in Ukraine. In the meantime, Germany and France, whose trade share with China is relatively high, are desperately looking for the room for strategic maneuver. Out of the 147.2 billion euros ($157.9 billion) the EU invested in China from 2020 to 2022, 62 percent came from Germany (32 billion euros), France (17 billion euros), and the Netherlands (13.7 billion euros). The EU’s China risk has migrated from Central Europe to Western Europe. Nevertheless, Europe could not surrender to China on the issue of values such as human rights and the rule of law. After the EU imposed sanctions on Chinese officials and related organizations for the human rights repression in Xinjiang Uyghur in March 2021, China put members of the European Parliament and the Political and Security Committee of the European Council on its list of retaliatory sanctions. Europe showed a cold reaction to the unfathomable countermeasure from China. China’s subsequent “wolf warrior diplomacy” only helped Europe’s favorability toward China hit rock bottom in various polls, fueled by a growing wariness of Europeans about closer China-Russia relations after the Ukraine war. An unbridgeable gap has emerged between China and Europe in terms of value systems, freezing investment agreements and other types of relations. For Germany, the engine of the European economy, a big question is how to separate the economy from politics in its strategy toward China. Germany has long focused on protecting corporate interests in the carmaking, mechanical, electronic and chemical sectors based on the Wandel durch Handel, or Change through trade. China has been Germany’s biggest trade partner over the past seven years with both trade volume and investment on the rise. But Germany’s stance toward China is changing, as succinctly hinted at by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who recently said, ”China has changed. As a result of this and China’s political decisions, we need to change our approach to China.” After Xi’s third-term in office was confirmed last November, the German chancellor did lead a large-scale economic delegation to Beijing, but he soon accentuated the need for “smart diversification.” In its first strategy report on dealing with China, Germany in July defined China as a “systemic rival” who prioritizes the interests of a one-party system over the rule-based order. After alarms sounded over sensitive issues — such as China’s human rights repression, a methodical crackdown on spies and disinformation — on the level of national security strategy, Germany put top priority on economic relations with the United States and NATO to tackle such challenges. Germany vowed to stand with other EU members under China’s economic pressure. To be sure, Germany has no intention to kill the cow that still provides milk, as it cannot simply brush off the gargantuan Chinese market. But once practicality outweighs values, it starts to get out of control. If order-cherishing Germany collapses, Europe crumbles. As Germany alone cannot deal with China, it desperately needs reliable countries within the boundaries of Europe and beyond. As a result, the importance of Korea and Japan as partners to Germany and other members of the EU for technology and the rule of law grows. China wants to divide Europe by weaponizing its still-attractive market and investment, while Europe continues to devise countermeasures, separately or together. The war between China and Europe is ongoing. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a hardliner on China, provoked a rage from China’s Foreign Ministry after she called Xi a “dictator” on par with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Earlier, the EU forewarned a trade dispute with China by announcing its plan to impose tariffs on Beijing’s subsidy for Chinese electric vehicles. China and Europe are attacking one another before the imminent danger of economic recession. If values and alliance converge, negotiating power grows. Based on bilateral relations, no country can deal with China effectively. A West sharing the same values is not united as solidly as before. The United States alone cannot lead the West, and Europe can’t, either. They need partners. The United States and Japan — and Europe and Korea — need each other. The West is certainly not an entity based on substance, and Korea must not cheer itself for being a proud member of the West. Rather, Korea may have to fight apparent resistance against a new alliance based on values like democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, possibly at the cost of economic losses. Korea also needs economic relations with the non-Western countries, including the BRICS. But for some countries, values themselves become national interests. While there are countries who desperately need a security alliance to safeguard their freedom and democracy, there are others whose trade systems or rule of law help ensure economic interests. For some countries who earned freedom and human rights after shedding blood over a long time, the values themselves become principles they must keep at any cost. Korea’s China strategy must start with making clear what values and principles the country must keep. Practical tactics in detail can derive from it. A nation’s integrity and its partnership depends on whether it has such values and principles. Expedient pragmatism cannot last long. Instead, expanded solidarity based on firm value diplomacy can reinforce Korea’s positioning in dealing with China based on the rule of law. Europe and Korea certainly can share their worries to find an answer. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

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