Biden visit to test South Korean leader’s tough talk on China

During campaigning in South Korea’s presidential election, Yoon Suk-yeol promised to strike a clear path in his country’s long-running dilemma over how to balance relations with the United States and China.

With the two global superpowers jostling for economic and military supremacy in Asia, the candidate for the conservative People Power Party pledged to decisively side with its security ally the US, even if it risked South Korea’s crucial trade relationship with China.

Yoon said he would go as far as to expand the presence of a US missile defence system called THAAD in South Korea, which sparked costly unofficial sanctions on South Korean goods and culture by China and set off years of frosty relations.

Only weeks after taking office on May 10, Yoon will see his loyalties tested in his own back yard on Friday, when US President Joe Biden visits Seoul as part of a trip to Asia that also includes Japan, another US ally.

Biden’s visit comes as global trade is facing pressure from more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and disruptions to energy and food supply chains due to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

China is by far South Korea’s largest trading partner, taking more than one-quarter of its exports, and Seoul relies on its massive neighbour to power key industries such as chips and autos. South Korea also has a comprehensive security alliance with the US that dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War. The country still hosts approximately 28,000 American troops on its soil.

On the eve of his first meeting with Biden, Yoon, a former prosecutor with no political experience prior to becoming president, appears to be quickly learning just how difficult it is for the leader of an export-dependent, mid-sized Asia Pacific country to balance trade, security and diplomatic priorities at a time of growing rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

Though he talked tough on China before taking office, Yoon’s early actions as president suggest he has reckoned with the need to balance South Korea’s alliance with the US with its trade reliance on China. Notably, he appears to have walked back his attention-grabbing election campaign promise to deploy additional THAAD batteries in South Korea, with the pledge omitted from a list of governance tasks recently released by his office.

He also held phone talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before taking office, during which the two leaders exchanged cordial statements about bilateral relations. Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan travelled to Seoul to attend Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, and before his trip, China’s foreign ministry described the countries as “close neighbours” and “important cooperation partners”.

While in Seoul, Wang conveyed a letter from Xi inviting Yoon to make an official visit to China.Both sides have an incentive to maintain the robust bilateral trade of recent years. Last year, South Korea’s exports to China rose more than 20 percent, driven by brisk shipments of semiconductors and steel.

In April, with major Chinese cities under lockdown due to COVID-19, shipments declined 3.4 percent from a year earlier after gaining 16.6 percent in March, according to the South Korean trade ministry.

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