Opportunities for South Korea at the G7

By Terrence Matsuo

Last month, President Donald Trump announced his intention to invite several guests to the G7 Summit later this year. The unexpected inclusion of South Korea in the upcoming G7 summit may provide Seoul with an opportunity to advance its foreign policy aims, which recently have been constrained by growing tensions between the United States and China. Moreover, many experts see this as an opportunity to prompt the country to play a more proactive role in the global stage, starting with (but not limited to) assisting with global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

American experts praised the U.S. decision to invite South Korea to the expanded summit of the G7 later this year. Pointing to shared challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and growing authoritarianism in the world, they noted that South Korea can bring useful experience and perspective to the international meeting. Lindsey Ford of the Brookings Institution says that from economics to security to democratic values, “South Korea plays a very important role in working alongside the U.S. and other like-minded allies really to uphold a lot of the principles that we think are important in the international system.”

The Blue House was quick to accept President Trump’s invitation. According to a readout of a phone call between the two leaders, “President Moon expressed his gratitude and welcomed the invitation extended by the United States in its capacity as the host of this year’s Summit.” Additionally, President Moon Jae In also said that he agreed the G7 should be expanded to include other members. “President Moon expressed his sympathy for modifying the G7 framework, and underlined his belief that inviting the Republic of Korea, Australia, India, and Russia is an appropriate step,” he said, according to the readout.

Brad Glosserman, deputy director for the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University in Japan, in an email said that the president’s expansion of the G7 “reflects Trump’s desire to reanimate the G7 and turn it into a vehicle to develop a unified strategy on China. Seoul is critical to the success of any such effort.”

“Trump’s real intent was to convene a larger group of nations to get them onboard with the U.S. objective to create a bloc working against China,” observed Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. In an email interview, he added: “After the extent of China’s COVID cover-up became apparent, Washington has sought to retaliate against a number of long-standing concerns about China, e.g. improper trading practices, expansionist activities in the South China Sea, etc.”

Although there are many topics the G7 could discuss, experts in Washington say China tops the list. “I would expect that China will come up. It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t,” said Ms. Ford in a telephone interview. The foreign ministers of the G7 have already released a joint statement condemning China for its decision to move forward with its national security legislation for Hong Kong. Ms. Ford noted that the G7 is a “valuable setting” for the US and its partners “to discuss areas where they want to coordinate their policies and how they approach China.”

Although Seoul has its own concerns about Beijing, a focus on China will be a challenge for South Korea to manage at the summit. Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on Korea policy in the Obama administration and fellow contributor to this blog, warns: “Seoul has to recognize that standing still in the middle is not a viable policy. It has to proactively propose a way it can quietly, but substantively, contribute to U.S. efforts to balance Chinese power through its investments and capabilities.” In an email, Mr. Oba also said that “the best way to avoid getting trapped in an explicit balancing strategy is to convince the United States it is a helpful player in an implicit balancing strategy.”

But while managing relations with China will be difficult, the experts noted that the G7 allows South Korea a chance to shine on the international stage and advance its own priorities. “Fundamentally, Seoul will see the G7 as an important opportunity to engage President Trump and other world leaders on North Korea policy at a critical moment,” said Mr. Oba. “It will also like the optics of being among the major powers at the table on global issues, so it may well seek to highlight its leadership on public health this year, too,” he added.

South Korea has won international praise for its successful response to the coronavirus pandemic. “I would expect that coordinating on the continued fallout and recovery from the COVID crisis will be a topic of importance for the G7 countries,” observed Ms. Ford. She added: “That’s an issue where I think in particular South Korea has…a lot of practical advice that it can offer in terms of lessons learned, because it’s handled the outbreak so well.”

Also in attendance at the G7 will be Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan. Bilateral relations with South Korea remain tense, and the two men have not held an in-person meeting since a brief conversation in November of last year when the two men met on the sidelines of an international summit with members of ASEAN.

Experts are divided on whether or not a bilateral meeting, or trilateral meeting with the U.S. will happen. Mr. Oba said: “I am confident the United States is seeking both a bilateral Moon-Abe summit and a trilateral summit.” But Deputy Director Glosserman was more pessimistic. “I don’t see them wanting to meet to exchange recriminations, so absent progress in the relationship that they can ratify, they likely won’t have more than a perfunctory photo op,” he said.

Although it seems difficult to envision either a bilateral South Korea-Japan meeting, or a trilateral one with the United States, experts note that allied coordination remains important to addressing challenges faced by all three states. Ms. Ford said that South Korea and Japan are America’s “two closest allies in Asia, and are, I think, central to U.S. security and broader stability in the region.” She added that with shared national security threats in the region, this is “a moment when it’s particularly important for the U.S. and its allies to be working together and on the same page as much as possible.”

Although much remains uncertain about the G7 summit, it should be momentous for all involved. Ms. Ford said that the invitation by President Trump to President Moon is “an acknowledgment of the role that South Korea has to play, not just in Asia, but more broadly on the international stage.” She also said that the conclave has the potential to impact policies around the globe. “To me, the most important thing coming out of the G7 is that like-minded, democratic countries are able to speak in a coordinated fashion, and as much as possible, with a unified voice on the most important political and security issues of the day,” said Ms. Ford.

Terrence Matsuo is a writer and analyst of American foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific region and a Contributing Author for The Peninsula. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from flickr user GS Chun

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.