Countries Struggle to Choose Between China and the U.S.

South Korea’s ambivalent stance extends to the debate over the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, which takes in about a sixth of South Korea’s electronics-parts exports to China. The Trump administration has banned sales of American technology to Huawei and urged U.S. allies such as South Korea to not do business with the firm, because of alleged national-security risks associated with its connections to the Chinese government.

But when I met this spring with Peter Ha, an executive with SK Telecom, South Korea’s leading wireless provider, just as the country became the first in the world to launch 5G mobile networks nationwide, he didn’t rule out a future partnership with Huawei. “Business will be business,” he said to me and other reporters. (SK Telecom and another operator, KT, currently use equipment from the South Korean company Samsung, a Huawei competitor. But the third player in the market, LG Uplus, employs Huawei technology.)

Kim Joon-hyung, a former foreign-policy adviser to Moon’s presidential campaign, told me that the South Korean president also believes that his effort to reconcile with North Korea will help prevent Seoul from being squeezed between the United States and China. For example, he explained, “if we have a good relationship with the North, then we can say that we don’t need THAAD,” a system intended to defend against North Korean missiles.

The U.S. and South Korean push for a comprehensive peace and denuclearization deal with North Korea, which so far has made little progress, could paradoxically also inflame great-power strife in Asia if the diplomatic campaign actually succeeds. Some experts have gone so far as to suggest that North Korea may be interested in entering into a security alliance with the United States against China, which the Kim regime has long distrusted and resented its dependence on even though they appear to have close relations.

If North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and ends hostilities with the United States, China will argue that there’s no longer a rationale for the U.S. troop presence in South Korea and possibly Japan as well, and demand the withdrawal of American forces, Lee Seong-hyon, a China expert at the Sejong Institute, outside of Seoul, told me. Washington might in turn encourage “North Korea to defect from the Chinese camp,” which would conjure the long-standing Chinese fear of a U.S. ally materializing “right across the Yalu River.” China doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons, Lee said, but it prefers the “status quo” with North Korea over a negotiated resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, because the latter would raise the question of “What’s next?” North Korea, of course, could also side with none of the major powers surrounding it and instead play them off one another.

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