The discourse centered around a burning question about a possible clash between two world powers: What if the two most important countries South Korea relied on ― namely the United States and China ― fight each other over certain issues which are also crucial to South Korea, and their severe competition creates a situation where Seoul has to choose between the two as a business partner?
If this hypothetical situation becomes a reality, South Korea's diplomacy will be put to the test. China was (and still is) South Korea's largest trade partner, whereas the United States is its key ally, which the South is heavily dependent on for its security.
Back then, foreign ministry officials flatly denied that such a possibility could actually happen. I remember one high-ranking official saying that international relations were not a zero-sum game, and thus, South Korea facing calls to choose between the two countries was unlikely to happen.
It turns out they were wrong. South Korea has been asked to choose between the United States and China. In 2016, for example, the Park Geun-hye administration announced that a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery would be deployed in South Korea, which irritated Beijing.
Claiming that THAAD was a direct threat to China, as Beijing considered it an extension of the U.S.-allied missile defense system, the Chinese government launched economic coercion tactics as a form of retaliation. Entertainment and tourism were hit harder than other industries, while some South Korean companies that were operating in China also suffered from the fallout of South Korea-bashing there. South Korean TV shows were banned and events featuring South Korean stars were cancelled. Chinese tourists to South Korea dropped sharply, as the state tourist board ordered travel agents to stop selling package tours to South Korea.
How could we better describe this situation ― where South Korea is pressured from both China as well as the United States to side with one side at the expense of the other ― other than as a zero-sum game?
It is deplorable that "deniers" of these circumstances seem to have the upper hand in the foreign ministry.
In September, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong drew harsh criticism from the Korean media for his remarks that were interpreted to curry favor with China during a session hosted by the U.S. think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. Denying the formation of two blocs in Asia ― one being a Chinese bloc and the other being a non-Chinese bloc, as the moderator put it ―- Chung reiterated what Chinese officials have said when facing similar circumstances, calling the notion of Asia being divided into two blocs the reflection of a Cold War mentality. He also denied the emergence of an assertive China, elaborating that they want to have their voices heard by others.
His sympathetic remarks on China were met with derision from the Korean media, which accused the foreign minister of having acted like a spokesman for China, not South Korea.
I am bringing the U.S.-China rivalry issue up again, not to prove that South Korean officials wrongfully predicted what would happen after the rise of China, but to underscore the price South Korea has been paying, due to a lack of strategy on China.
I think that there must have been people inside the government who were taking the rise of China seriously and were rallying support to forge a tailor-made strategy to deal with this world power, with which South Korea has little in common, particularly on the security front, as well as on issues such as North Korea.
This strategy would require a great deal of thorough, sophisticated and China-specific measures. China is what its leaders call a "social democracy," and unlike other free democracies, the state has enormous power to dictate that the private sector do this or that, as we've seen with what happened in China's outbound tourism to South Korea, or with its entertainment industry, which banned the airing of Korean dramas or performances of Korean stars after the THAAD deployment.
Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, there have been no such efforts made in South Korea to better understand China, leaving the country panicked when bad things have occurred, as we saw in 2016 and afterwards.
A China strategy, if it were in place, would have guided South Korean entrepreneurs, tourism sector workers, singers and actors not to be over excited about business opportunities there. It would have recommended them to diversify the regions or countries they were active in, so that they might have been able to minimize any possible fallout from China retaliating economically.
Nations or peoples have power when every person or every state depends on them. Such nations will be tempted to abuse this power if they feel that they are influential enough to change others' courses of action. This is what China has done, and South Korea has had no option but to deter it with the absence of a China strategy.