South Korean President Moon Jae-in could be risking a rift with the U.S. by pursuing closer ties with China, according to a top opposition leader.
Joo Ho-young, the legislative floor leader for South Korea’s conservative United Future Party, said in an interview that Moon was being too deferential to China in his efforts to shore up ties. That policy could put Seoul on opposite sides with its key security ally as relations worsen between Washington and Beijing, Joo said.
“Moon cares about Beijing’s ire too much, and that resulted in Seoul being somewhat passive when it comes to taking part in the U.S.’s Indo-Pacific strategy,” Joo said Monday in Seoul, referring to the Trump administration’s effort to bolster its economic and security partnerships in Asia.
South Korea is caught between maintaining strong ties with China — its biggest trading partner — and the U.S., its main military ally and a key market for the exports that power its economy. The pressure has only picked up as the U.S. has sought help to block China’s push into regional waters and Moon’s progressives have been criticized for keeping silent about Beijing’s moves seen as suppressing democracy in Hong Kong.
“It is of course difficult for Seoul to fully take part in the U.S.’s China-containment policy,” Joo said. “But we must play a certain role in the U.S.’s regional security plan, if we want to maintain our alliance with Washington.”
Moon’s office referred a request for comment to the ruling Democratic Party on Tuesday. Party spokeswoman Choi Ji-eun said that the president’s “New Southern Policy” overlapped with the U.S. strategy, adding the government was “discussing and negotiating common interests” in the region with Washington.
As Moon spars with the Trump administration over its demands for as much as a fivefold increase in troop funding, he’s also courting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a possible visit. China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, traveled to Busan last week for talks, although meetings between the two leaders may be pushed back due to a recent resurgence in coronavirus infections in South Korea.
The United Future Party is attempting to appeal to more moderate voters ahead of the presidential election in 2022, when Moon is barred from seeking election due to a one-term cap on presidential terms. A poll earlier this month showed the conservatives exceeding the ruling party’s approval rating for the first time since 2017, when the last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office and later jailed on corruption charges.
The conservatives face a difficult balancing act in crafting a response to Trump’s demands for more troop funding. While the bloc’s base traditionally supports the U.S. alliance as the country’s chief defense against North Korea, Washington’s demands are widely seen as exorbitant among South Koreans.
Joo said South Korea must find a balance between its security and financial contributions to the alliance. He declined to specify what he saw as an appropriate level of funding.