Steady American leadership is key to success with China and Korea

East Asia is facing numerous challenges, with emerging regional powers, global superpowers, and global threats all sharing borders and common concerns. Dealing with regional challenges requires a regional perspective, and individual countries cannot be mired down with domestic political or day-to-day concerns if regional growth and stability are to be achieved.

During my time in office, the Obama administration “pivoted” to Asia in an acknowledgment that this region of the world would be of paramount importance to U.S. trade and national security. Now, with tension mounting for trade and security matters, it is more important than ever for East Asian nations to maintain stability and predictability in both internal and external affairs, in order to continue to court U.S. investment and maintain prosperity and growth. The willingness of President Moon Jae In of South Korea to hold talks with Kim Jong Un of North Korea is an encouraging start, and even more opportunities exist for South Korea.

{mosads}East Asian countries, with the exception of China — and perhaps Laos and Cambodia — look for U.S. leadership. They may posture and raise concerns, but they rely on the United States for some semblance of stability and order. The United States, regrettably, is already beginning to squander leadership. U.S. rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the “America first” policy, along with China’s rise, is beginning to tilt the balance toward China. That would increase, not decrease, instability in the region.

On the security front, China’s expansion of its military presence in the South China Sea remains a source of tension. On the more imminent and high-stakes issue of North Korea, the United States and China have a shared interest in a less provocative Kim Jong Un. The United States is hopeful that China will help deescalate North Korea’s aggressive stances, while China and South Korea hope for a ratcheting down of divisive rhetoric on both sides. All parties want to minimize tension and avoid military conflict, but history has proven that the Korean peninsula and China will be the nations impacted by a conflict between the United States and North Korea, further incentivizing each nation’s investment in maintaining peace in the region.

Kim’s threats have moved the once conciliatory President Moon Jae In a bit closer to President Trump’s more hawkish approach. At the same time, President Trump’s hostility towards the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement has created friction with this longtime ally at a time of internal transition. Instability threatens South Korea’s major economic driver, as well. The scandal that rocked Samsung, South Korea’s largest and most well-known family-run conglomerate, has led to the perception that politics — rather than actual evidence — dictated the administration of justice. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, it is likely to complicate President Moon Jae In’s ambitious reform agenda.

Indeed, a harsh and unfair penalty will only provide a rare opportunity for Samsung’s and Korea’s competitors to inflict damage to the company and the country. If there is one thing that businesses, and investors, hate, it is unpredictability. A pragmatic approach to internal economics would help further South Korea’s stability and leadership in the region. In an uncertain time, continuity should trump castigation — South Korea would do well with a pragmatic approach, rather than allowing emotions or politics to lead to a punishment that “sends a message.”

Steady U.S. engagement with China, South Korea, and other Asian countries is more important than ever. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I led efforts to bring China into the World Trade Organization. I believed then, and continue to believe, membership in the WTO will nudge China toward acting as a leading stakeholder and defender of a global trade system.

My three years as the U.S. ambassador to China confirmed my sense that the Chinese are very clear on their long-range aspirations to be a preeminent global power. This has become even more obvious under President Xi Jinping. Having visited every province in China and interacted with business leaders across the country, I know firsthand that the Chinese will champion their industries and exploit weaknesses, whether it is turmoil at Samsung or volatility in U.S. policy.

When it comes to their rational self-interest, the Chinese are unapologetic. South Korea may want to take note, rather than undermining major economic drivers. Samsung employs hundreds of thousands of people in South Korea, and makes up 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Instability at Samsung means instability for the entire South Korean economy, and China is waiting in the wings to take advantage of any such instability.

President Trump’s vow to open up the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, if managed well, could improve our bilateral trade ties. Both countries have an interest in the more balanced and mutually beneficial relationship envisioned with the agreement. I supported the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, only after a struggle over Korea’s willingness to import U.S. beef. The hard work and compromise that went into the agreement was worth it. Deepening and strengthening our trade relationships in Asia is good for U.S. interests and the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is a cornerstone of this strategy. It is essential for maintaining U.S. credibility and reliability as a trading partner, and can only be achieved when major corporations behave in rational, predictable ways.

China’s rapid ascent and its increasingly transparent ambitions for global dominance, dangerous behavior by North Korea, and an unfolding political and economic transition in South Korea are among the many issues affecting U.S. interests in Asia. Only steady leadership and close engagement with its allies will strengthen the America’s hand and advance our mutual interests in the region.

Max Baucus served as U.S. ambassador to China from 2014 to 2017, following 36 years as a U.S. senator from Montana. He is founder of the Baucus Group, which represents several companies based in Asia.

Tags China Donald Trump Foreign policy Max Baucus North Korea South Korea

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