Biden to push South Korea to take tough line on China at summit

The US is trying to convince Moon Jae-in to agree to a strong statement of concern about China when the South Korean president becomes the second world leader to meet Joe Biden in Washington on Friday.

The White House wants Moon to back robust language in a joint statement issued during the summit, as part of its strategy to work with allies to counter China, according to five people familiar with the situation.

But four of the people familiar with the talks between the White House and the Blue House, the presidential mansion in Seoul, said Moon was reluctant to include language that would trigger a sharp response from Beijing.

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South Korea is expected to agree to include language about working with the “Quad”, a grouping of the US, Japan, India and Australia that is seeking to contain Chinese influence. But Seoul is seeking only a passing reference to avoid angering China, which has castigated the US and other Quad members over the partnership.

While South Korea has a security alliance with the US, it has long resisted pressure to more overtly confront China. During the Trump administration, it pushed back against US requests to stop South Korean companies from working with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms champion.

Seoul remains wary of provoking another backlash after South Korean companies faced Chinese boycotts in 2017 in response to the deployment of a US Thaad missile defence system.

“South Koreans have nightmares about more Thaad-type sanctions,” said Victor Cha, a South Korea expert at Georgetown University and former White House official. “Seoul doesn’t want to make the hard choices on China, but not making a decision — hedging — is not a long-term strategy. It weakens the alliance and pisses off China.” 

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Biden has put a premium on strengthening alliances to create more leverage over China. At his summit with Yoshihide Suga last month, he convinced the Japanese prime minister to issue a statement of support for Taiwan in the face of Chinese aggression.

Suga agreed to the language — the first such statement in five decades — despite some concern in Tokyo about economic retaliation from China.

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The White House does not expect Moon to go as far as Suga. But one person said the US was “pushing hard” for tougher language on China. A second person said that Biden hoped Moon would be more willing since he was given the privilege of the administration’s second in-person summit in Washington.

Seoul has asked the US for Covid-19 vaccines to tackle supply constraints. It has proposed a “vaccine swap” that would involve the US supplying vaccines in the near term and getting them back later.

The White House declined to comment on the discussions with South Korea. The Blue House declined to comment on the US pressure over China.

Moon is also hoping to win assurances from Biden about how the US president intends to tackle the nuclear threat from North Korea after Trump and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, held three fruitless meetings.

The Moon administration has been pushing Biden to ease international sanctions on Pyongyang or enforce them with greater flexibility to draw Kim back to the table for nuclear talks.

The Biden administration recently completed a review of its North Korea policy, with the president’s team signalling that he was open to resuming diplomatic contact but that sanctions would remain in place until Kim made a significant move towards denuclearisation.

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Seoul also wants Biden to name an envoy for North Korea, but a person familiar with the situation said the White House was divided over candidates, suggesting that an announcement to coincide with the summit was unlikely.

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Executives from South Korean companies will accompany Moon to Washington, and are expected to make announcements about investments in the US in semiconductors, batteries and electric vehicles.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter

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