SEOUL — U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt weekend invitation for South Korea to attend the next Group of Seven summit was a dream come true for the status-conscious country. But it has also sparked uncomfortable debate over possible negative implications for a nation dependent on trade and good relations with nearby power China.
Despite the apprehension, President Moon Jae-in accepted the offer on Monday in a 15-minute phone call with the U.S. leader. But he was careful to limit Seoul’s role to the issues of coronavirus response, for which South Korea has been praised globally, and economics — a clear attempt to avoid upsetting Beijing.
“I am willing to accept President Trump’s invitation, and South Korea will play a role both in disease prevention and the economy,” Moon told Trump in establishing parameters for participation in the G-7 meeting.
Trump also invited Australia, India and Russia — which used to be a regular attendee under a previous G-8 configuration until it was expelled over the annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 — to the gathering, for which an exact date has yet to be set.
The presidential Blue House was clearly excited over the announcement, saying it means South Korea will have a coveted seat at the table of world leaders making decisions on global issues. A high-ranking official at the office also played down possible Chinese complaints over the invite, saying Beijing will not protest South Korea’s participation.
South Korea, which was one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s and even economically lagged bitter rival North Korea, transformed itself over decades into an industrial and technological powerhouse in sectors including autos, shipbuilding, semiconductors and, more recently, smartphones. It takes an intense pride in international status markers such as the hosting of events such as the Olympics, which it has done twice in 1988 and 2018, and the Group of 20 Summit held in Seoul in 2010.
But analysts say the invitation is a double-edged sword.
It can boost Seoul’s reputation and presence on the world stage as a participant in the prestigious club of advanced nations — which also includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K. — and allow it to exercise a degree of political power beyond its already significant economic influence.
The rub is that it could come at the cost of relations with China, which casts a huge shadow over the Northeast Asian country. Beijing, for example, could retaliate by wielding its political and economic influence. China is South Korea’s largest trade partner, sucking in 30% of its exports. Beijing can also flex its muscles in regard to North Korea, a priority issue for Moon.
Lee Dong-ryul, chair of the China Research Center in East Asia Institute, says South Korea is caught up amid competition between the U.S. and China for allies. “In this case, South Korea will face pressure to choose one side because of its unique geopolitical place,” Lee said. “South Korea has few options but to strengthen its strategic flexibility, seeking to make a proper choice to maximize its national interest.”
China has retaliated before, such as when South Korea in 2016 allowed the deployment of a U.S. military missile defense system. Targeting the country’s trade vulnerability, it caused billions of dollars in economic losses to South Korean companies, including Hyundai Motor and Lotte Shopping.
Seoul’s ticket to the G-7 summit also could affect President Xi Jinping’s planned visit to South Korea later this year. Xi had been expected to arrive by this month, but the trip has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, as was another he intended to make to Japan.
China’s Foreign Ministry has expressed concern over the G-7 summit attendance, with spokesman Zhao Lijian telling a news conference on Tuesday that “seeking a clique targeting China is not a popular move, and it doesn’t serve the interests of countries concerned.”
Moon himself acknowledged that tensions between Washington and Beijing weigh on South Korea. “Worsening ethnocentrism and conflicts between superpowers are burdening our economy,” he said during an emergency meeting to discuss the economy on Monday.
Analysts say that South Korea should pursue its national interest based on its own principles and values. Park In-hwi, a professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University, described those as “democracy, human rights, peace, prosperity, justice and climate change.”
A useful lesson for South Korea can be found in its membership in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, according to the JoongAng Ilbo, a conservative, nationally circulated newspaper. Seoul joined the financial vehicle for China’s Belt and Road Initiative five years ago despite objections from the U.S. The paper, in an editorial on Monday, argued that Seoul — with the national interest firmly in mind — should do the same regarding the G-7.
The U.S., meanwhile, has pressured its security ally to join its Open and Free Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at containing China’s influence in Asia. Seoul has so far neither accepted nor declined the offer as it seeks to maintain some level of strategic ambiguity even while hosting key American military bases as a guarantee against possible North Korean aggression. Moon, for example, mentioned that his country wants to contribute to regional prosperity at an international meeting in Bangkok in November.
Another concern for South Korea is Japan, a country that it often views as a benchmark in terms of its own global and regional position. Despite Trump already having proffered the G-7 invitation, It remains uncertain whether Seoul’s longtime Asian rival and the only G-7 member in the region supports the idea. Japan’s top government spokesman said Monday that the current G-7 framework remained important, but refrained from mentioning specific countries.
Relations between South Korea and Japan, which ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, are often tense over historical, territorial and even economic issues. On Tuesday, South Korea’s Industry Ministry announced that it would resume a complaint procedure with the World Trade Organization against Tokyo over export controls, saying the Japanese government has no will to resolve the problem.
Meanwhile, Russia appears to be cold on the concept of a G-7 that does not include China.
“Russia thinks that now it is not very efficient to discuss global problems in geopolitics, security or economy without China and India,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, adding it would be better to discuss issues with the Group of 20.