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Monday, April 15, 2024

U.S.-China tensions overshadow Shangri-La Dialogue

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Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup speaks at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday. [DEFENSE MINISTRY]
Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup speaks at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday. [DEFENSE MINISTRY]

Reining in North Korea’s rising military threats dominated South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup’s talks with defense chiefs from the United States, Japan and China during the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but his efforts to solicit cooperation from Seoul’s neighbors were overshadowed by U.S.-China tensions.

During his speech at the main session of the forum, Lee called for “resolute and unified” international cooperation against Pyongyang’s illicit weapons programs, which he characterized as a “shared” threat that affects the “entire world.”

His talks with U.S., Japanese and Chinese counterparts came amid high tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the North’s failed attempt to launch a satellite into orbit last week.

By meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada in both a bilateral setting as well as in a trilateral format with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Lee signaled that Seoul would not only seek to deepen security cooperation with Tokyo, but also move past a prior military dispute from December 2018, when a Japanese maritime patrol aircraft made what Seoul called a “threatening” low-altitude flight over a South Korean warship in the East Sea.

Lee’s bilateral meeting with Hamada on Sunday was also the two countries’ first defense ministerial meeting since November 2019.

The previous day, Lee, Austin and Hamada held a trilateral meeting where they agreed to build and introduce a system that would allow them to share North Korean missile warning data in real-time before the end of the year.

The South Korean defense minister also held talks with Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu in an effort to seek cooperation from North Korea’s largest trade partner and historical ally to curb its nuclear and missile ambitions.

Lee told reporters after the meeting that he “emphasized China’s constructive role for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and China shares the view.”

But it remains to be seen just how much pressure Beijing would apply on Pyongyang, given that China alongside Russia has vetoed several resolutions at the United Nations Security Council this past year condemning the North for its missile launches.

China has also expressed deep dissatisfaction with the Yoon administration’s unwillingness to abide by the so-called “Three Nos” policy announced by the previous Moon Jae-in administration, which partially normalized economic relations after Beijing slapped unofficial business and trade restrictions on Seoul following the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery to Seongju, North Gyeongsang.

The policy entails no additional U.S. Thaad batteries in South Korea, no South Korean integration into a U.S.-led regional missile defense system and no trilateral alliance with the U.S. and Japan.

A missile data-sharing system between South Korea, the United States and Japan could possibly stoke China’s ire and undercut its willingness to dissuade the North from carrying out weapons tests.

South Korea’s participation in such a system could become particularly sensitive for China as the latter seeks to assert its claim over Taiwan.

During his remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Sunday, Li defended a Chinese warship that maneuvered in front of a U.S. destroyer and a Canadian frigate as they sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese defense minister argued that the passage of the allied Western vessels in the strait on “freedom of navigation patrols” was a provocation to China.

The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said that the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Montreal were sailing “through waters where high-seas freedoms of navigation and overflight apply in accordance with international law” when the incident occurred.

Li rejected Austin’s invitation for talks at the forum, although they shook hands briefly.

But both said that a potential war over Taiwan would be “devastating,” raising the possibility that two superpowers could find common ground to avert an open military confrontation over the self-governing island.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]