On March 18, the US and China met in Anchorage, Alaska, for the first time since Joe Biden took office in January. The two days of talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi were contentious, suggesting a long and tense competition between the two nations.
Like previous great power competitions, the one between the US and China is about the acquisition and maintenance of power. In the competition, the US plays the role of dominant power seeking to maintain its position while China plays the role of rising power seeking to move into the lead. Comments by Blinken and Yang reveal this psyche. Blinken criticized human rights abuses in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region and cast China’s assertiveness as a threat to “the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” Yang responded sharply by stating, “We believe that it is important for the United States to change its own image and to stop advancing its own democracy in the rest of the world.”
The US is approaching the competition by telling its allies that it is “back” and is willing to take an active role in global affairs. At home, Biden is working to roll out vaccines to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control. He has also implemented a broad economic stimulus program to jump start the pandemic ravaged economy. If successful, the US will look much stronger a year from now.
The greater problem for Biden is social and political stability. He came into office as his defeated predecessor Donald Trump stoked doubts about his legitimacy and, by extension, the democracy itself. Racism, in its many forms, continues to weigh on the nation. As Vice President Kamala Harris stated clearly in remarks following shootings in Atlanta that targeted Asian American women, “Racism is real in America, and it has always been. Xenophobia is real in America and always has been. Sexism, too.” Biden clearly needs to work toward restoring faith in democracy and promoting social justice.
China, meanwhile, is pushing the narrative of “US decline” as a symptom of broader “Western decline.” This narrative posits that the US and Western European nations are in decline and that the Chinese model of high-tech, good government authoritarianism is better. Behind this, of course, lie deep-seated resentment against the West for imperialist encroachment in the 19th century.
The narrative of US decline is old and not limited to China. In the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of Japan as an economic superpower fed US decline theory. In the 1990s, European integration and the creation of the euro spurred a brief flurry of speculation that Europe and its new currency would overtake the US. Much of this speculation took place in the US among Americans critical of the status quo. Though the issues are different today, fears of US decline are common among Americans across the political spectrum.
For South Korea, the narrative of US decline is tempting. It, too, has looked on at the Trump years in dismay. The anti-American sentiment that swept university campuses in the 1980s left many in that generation and subsequent generations with a critical view of the US that makes its way into discussions of US decline.
In moving forward, South Korea should ignore the narrative of US decline and focus on its national interest. An aggressive and authoritarian China allied with North Korea is not in South Korea’s national interest. South Korea developed its economy and later its democracy in the US-dominated “rules-based order” that Secretary of State Blinken mentioned. Maintaining the conditions that allowed South Korea to thrive is critical to securing its future.
Which brings us to the Quad, an emerging security partnership among Australia, India, Japan and the US. President Biden has put the Quad at the center of his efforts to contain China’s rising influence. On March 13, the leaders of the Quad held their first virtual summit and wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. The article focused on cooperation among the four nations on climate change and distributing COVID-19 vaccines.
Though the article did not mention China, the four leaders rejected the Chinese authoritarian model by stating, “We recommit ourselves, once again, to an Indo-Pacific region that is free, open, secure and prosperous.” Surely South Korea shares these goals. In the article, the four leaders invited other nations to join them. South Korea should accept the invitation immediately, not just out of national interest, but as an expression of its values as a leading democracy.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com -- Ed.