U.S., South Korea end 2+2 talks, joint statement doesn’t name China

U.S. and South Korea hold 2 plus 2 talks between foreign and defense ministers on March 18, 2021 (Reuters)

Senior officials from the United States and South Korea concluded “2 plus 2” talks between foreign and defense ministers in Seoul on Thursday (March 18, 2021). A joint statement issued by both sides said both countries are committed to opposing all actions that undermine and weaken the rules-based international order, but did not directly mention the Chinese Communist Party.

Secretary of State John Blinken and Secretary of Defense John Austin opened their talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Seo Wook on Wednesday by directly emphasizing the unprecedented challenges posed by China and North Korea, making the U.S.-South Korean alliance more important than ever.

The South Koreans appear to share the U.S. view in principle. The alliance forged with blood on the battlefield 70 years ago is now the key to peace, security and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Thursday’s joint statement from South Korea and the U.S. “The foreign and defense ministers reaffirmed the South Korea-U.S. alliance. As global threats intensify, our alliance is more important than ever.”

The joint statement mentioned North Korea by name, saying that addressing the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile issues is a priority for the South Korean-U.S. alliance, but did not directly mention China in the context of regional and broader security issues.

The statement said, “As the regional security environment is encountering increasing challenges, the shared values of the Korea-U.S. alliance reinforce the commitment of both countries to oppose all actions that undermine and weaken the rules-based international order. South Korea and the United States reaffirm their mutual determination to continue working toward the creation of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

The Biden administration took office Jan. 20 maintaining many of the former Trump administration’s policies toward China, while emphasizing that it would coordinate with U.S. allies to jointly address the Chinese challenge.

On the first stop of the new senior U.S. administration’s first foreign trip, Tokyo responded enthusiastically to the Biden Administration‘s call and strategy.

The joint statement issued after the “2+2” meeting between the U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers devoted an entire paragraph to describing the types of Chinese actions that violate the international order and made clear that the two countries are committed to opposing China’s actions that undermine the rules-based international order, destabilize the region and coerce others, including Beijing‘s actions in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait, as well as its actions in the Hong Kong and Taiwan Straits. Taiwan Strait, and human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The U.S.-Japan joint statement on China drew strong resentment from Beijing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party of China (CPC) said it has made serious representations to the United States and Japan on this issue.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and Defense Secretary Austin in Seoul on March 18, 2021 (Reuters)

Prior to the U.S.-South Korea 2+2 meeting, South Korean media predicted that the U.S.-South Korea joint statement was unlikely to be as clear and tough on China as the U.S.-Japan joint statement because South Korea is more economically dependent on China than Japan and its ability to withstand Chinese retaliation is not as strong as Japan’s.

South Korea has been subjected to trade sanctions by China for having agreed to let the U.S. deploy the Saad missile defense system in South Korea, and has paid a significant economic price as a result.

However, some analysts believe that with China’s growing arrogance in its expansionist behavior and the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to unite allies in a joint response to China’s challenge, expect the pressure on South Korea to choose sides between the United States and China to grow.