The Hill: US outreach to China is raising questions and doubts in Korea

September 14, 2023

by: Seong-Hyon Lee and Zoe Leung

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When Biden remarked, “I don’t want to contain China” during a prominent visit to Vietnam this week, Beijing seemed unconvinced. Immediately, China’s state-controlled media criticized Biden’s statement as “deceptive” rhetoric. 

Those well-versed in Asian history could discern the strategic implications of Biden’s trip and found themselves puzzled. For example, a South Korean publication ran an article titled: “Gathering the ‘American side’ in the backyard of Beijing… Biden waved his hand saying, “It’s not a blockade of China.’” If Washington’s strategic messages neither convince China nor resonate with U.S. allies in the region, it prompts questions regarding the efficacy of Washington’s public messaging strategy — messages keenly observed not just by China, but also by U.S. allies. 

In the past few months, there has been a flurry of high-level interactions between the United States and China, many of which represented the first such trips in years. The Biden administration’s effort to inject stability into an otherwise ever-deteriorating relationship came in a period of mounting tensions, casting itself as a responsible superpower, following the recent breakdown in bilateral communication. However, the optics of these interactions reveal a more nuanced story. Beijing, in contrast, presented a story of U.S. desperation to engage and one of deference to Chinese officials, and U.S. allies in the region are taking notes of these conflicting signals. 

Following Secretary Blinken’s visit in June, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry both went to China in July, as well as Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo in August. In addition to these cabinet-level visits, CIA Director William Burns took a secret trip to China in May. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who played a key role in the U.S. rapprochement with China and is widely respected in China, was received by Chinese President Xi in July. Moreover, U.S. tech executives Bill Gates and Elon Musk also visited China during the same period.  

The fact that these official visits were all initiated by the U.S. side has raised some eyebrows. North Korea’s outlet referred to Blinken’s visit as “begging” for dialogue and a sign of U.S. anxiety and restlessness, echoing Chinese media’s portrayal that the U.S. approach to contain China has failed and will not succeed. The rogue state’s claim that the U.S. is reversing its so-called pressure campaign and loosening the screws on China may not seem too far-fetched elsewhere in East Asia, where Washington is seen as overly keen to send officials to Beijing. Despite U.S. enthusiasm, the lack of reciprocity from Beijing and the absence of concrete U.S. deliverables suggest that Beijing has an upper hand in negotiation for a potential détente.

The optics of Washington actively seeking to renew engagement with Beijing could produce unintentional results by planting doubts in the minds of U.S. allies in East Asia, where China is already winning on the economic front. In fact, after Blinken’s visit, even pro-American media outlets and pundits in South Korea, which typically align with U.S. mainstream media views, began urging President Yoon Suk-yeol to mend strained relations with China. Progressive media in South Korea, critical of President Yoon, has assailed him for thrusting South Korea into the frontline of U.S. confrontation with China. The U.S. rhetoric shift from a “decoupling” to “de-risking” is increasingly interpreted in South Korea as a concession from Washington.

There is a growing voice in South Korea advocating for a hedging strategy, wary of being entrapped in an inconsistent approach toward China. The sentiment and suspicion are rooted in South Korea’s historical suffering from major power struggles. South Koreans view the U.S. engagement with China as self-serving even as Washington calls for unity among its allies to counter China. Washington needs to deepen coordination and alignment with its allies to ensure that such perceived divisions are not exploited by Beijing. 

Certainly, Beijing’s portrayal of U.S. desperation contrasts sharply with the reality. China’s economy is suffering, and it stands to lose more than the United States, given that its exports have seen the largest drop in three years. The Biden administration has effectively used export controls and other measures to curb China’s growth and its transformation into a technological and military superpower, primarily by restricting its access to advanced chips and technology. The newly announced restriction on U.S. investments in certain Chinese tech industries is just one of many strategies aimed at containing China. 

Seong-Hyon Lee is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations and a visiting scholar at Harvard University Asia Center. Zoe Leung is senior director of research at the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors.