The 2021 conference of the World Economic Forum took place online instead of in Davos, Switzerland. Despite the unusual format, it still attracted many of the world’s leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In, and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Their language often sounded similar. However, on closer analysis, their ambitions appear distinct and divergent.
The theme of Davos this year was rebuilding trust. This is a laudable aim, particularly in East Asia, where suspicion and resentment have soured international relations.
Encouragingly, in their speeches to the World Economic Forum, the leaders of China, South Korea, and Japan used language that overflowed with positivity and promises of cooperation.
They spoke of the importance of respecting the law and pledged support for global alliances to deal with COVID-19. Each spoke proudly of their countries’ plans to combat climate change.
Optimists might have concluded that, despite their different political and ideological perspectives, all three have broadly similar aims.
However, there are many areas in which the goals of China, South Korea, and Japan diverge. And when one considers carefully what the leaders said – and also what they did not say – their rivalry becomes apparent.
China’s President Xi Jinping was the honored (virtual) guest on the first day of the event.
In his 15-minute address, he used many phrases that could have been lifted from a speech written for former U.S. President Barack Obama or current President Joe Biden.
Xi condemned division, confrontation, discrimination, and inequality, and assured his audience that China favors peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom.
He frequently mentioned two of his favorite motifs: the “shared destiny of humankind” and the win-win outcomes that flow when other countries cooperate with China.
However, there was also a brief flash of teeth. In a touch of wolf warrior diplomacy, Xi warned against “a new Cold War.” This could be read as a challenge to the United States and its allies in Asia, as China modernizes its military and asserts its territorial claims.
Xi boasted that China’s economy is booming despite a global recession.
He bemoaned the disruption caused by sanctions, not mentioning the sanctions that China is currently applying to Australia and Canada for political reasons.
Xi claimed that China is “a staunch follower of an independent foreign policy of peace.”
Yet this was followed the next day by a show of force, when jets of the People’s Liberation Army flew near the island of Taiwan, which China regards as rightfully part of its territory but which is in practice an autonomously governed state.
China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said: “We warn Taiwan independence elements, those who play with fire will burn themselves. Taiwan independence means war.”
If the World Economic Forum had taken place in Davos, Xi might have enjoyed a dinner with other leaders, followed by private talks.
Even though he did not leave Beijing, he nevertheless took the opportunity to network. Soon after his speech, he held a telephone conversation with the leader of South Korea, Moon Jae-In.
According to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moon told Xi that he relishes close exchanges with China through trade, education, and the response to the pandemic.
The official account stated that “China and the ROK have stuck together through thick and thin and have joined hands to promote exchanges and cooperation in various fields, which have yielded fruitful results.”
Yet there was another important topic that was probably redacted from the transcript of their conversation: South Korea’s relationship with the United States.
When South Korea agreed to host a U.S. missile defense system in 2016, it prompted an angry reaction from China, which imposed extensive trade sanctions and also barred Chinese tourists from visiting the country.
After a year, the South Koreans caved into Chinese pressure via the “three noes”: Promises that South Korea would not approve additional deployments of the missile defense batteries; join a U.S.-led regional missile defense system; or enter into a formal trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan. Then, during the Trump era, South Korea seemed to move deeper into the Chinese sphere of influence.
However, things appear to have shifted since the U.S. presidential election in November.
Moon has been effusive in his praise for Joe Biden on Twitter, saying that his inauguration heralded the dawn of a new beginning. “Together with the Korean people, I stand by your journey toward America United,” he said.
Shortly before the inauguration, Moon appointed a new foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, a former national security adviser, who is noted as a staunch proponent of the alliance.
In Moon’s mind, there is a close link between his quest to create a “peaceful peninsula free of war and nuclear weapons” and policies in Washington.
Moon longs for Biden’s full backing on the North Korean issue, including, ideally, another round of talks between a U.S. president and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Yet there is no hint of support in Washington for such a move. Nor would it be welcomed by China, as Xi may well have made clear in his telephone conversation with Moon.
The Korean New Deal
When the South Korean president took to the virtual podium at the World Economic Forum following his discussion with the Chinese leader, he chose to avoid almost all mention of foreign policy.
Instead, Moon outlined his domestic priorities, particularly his K-New Deal, which offers government funding to improve digital infrastructure and support green energy solutions.
Moon also said that prosperous companies in South Korea should be made to share their success with “those less fortunate” – a reference to a controversial windfall tax scheme.
Moon has often confronted South Korea’s powerful businesses.
In January this year, the Samsung heir, Lee Jae Yong, was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for corruption in an incident linked to the country’s former President Park Geun-hye, who was also jailed for bribery.
Moon’s political opponents dub him a “socialist” and he is markedly to the left of Japan’s Prime Minister, Suga Yoshihide, who leads a center-right, pro-business government.
If anything, Suga is regarded as more conservative than his predecessor, Abe Shinzo, who retired last year.
Despite their different political outlooks, and lasting tensions between their countries, there was an intriguing overlap between the rhetoric used at the conference by Moon and by Suga when they spoke of their domestic agendas.
In words that echoed Moon’s concept of a K-New Deal, Suga said that Japan’s domestic economy would be stimulated through investment in “green and digital” development and thus “give hope to the world.”
Suga said Japan would go carbon neutral by 2050. South Korea’s leader has also pledged to reach net-zero emissions by the same date.
These are ambitious targets for both nations, which have low levels of energy self-sufficiency and depend upon imported fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.
Their leaders insist the shift toward renewables will create jobs and grow their economies, yet they show little inclination to cooperate with each other.
A long-standing dispute over historical issues continues to cast a long shadow over their diplomatic relations.
Books criticizing Korean politicians are prominently displayed in Japanese stores and many Korean consumers have been boycotting Japanese brands, such as Uniqlo and Toyota.
Looking to Biden
The tension between South Korea and Japan also puts a strain upon their trilateral relationship with the United States.
Yet during his speech to the World Economic Forum, Suga was forthright about Japan’s alliance with the United States. He said: “We aim for united global communities and that will only be enhanced with the Biden administration.”
He added that Japan supports a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – terminology that became the hallmark of U.S. policy under former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The Japanese prime minister also suggested that he believes China should be held accountable for the original outbreak of COVID-19.
A World Health Organization team is conducting investigations in the Chinese city of Wuhan, but critics of China claim the government may attempt to deflect blame by constraining the activities of the scientists or by dismissing their findings.
Suga said: “Japan considers it is important that the WHO, which holds the key in response to infectious diseases, steadily carries out scientific investigation and verification in a transparent manner.”
The most remarkable aspect of Suga’s speech was his pledge to host the postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo in the summer of 2021, even though, as he acknowledged, the city is currently in a state of emergency.
“I am standing in the front line of the battle,” said Suga. Yet he went on: “We are determined to deliver games that bring hope and courage to the world and a testimony to mankind prevailing over COVID-19.”
He finished by appealing to members of the audience to give Japan their continued support and corporation.
In his vote of thanks, the World Economic Forum’s founder, Charles Schwabb, seemed impressed, praising Suga for his “confidence and optimism.”
Yet it was notable that no other delegate at the forum mentioned anything about the Olympics.
This suggests that Suga is more or less alone in looking forward to a celebration of sport, while the rest of the world is preoccupied with COVID-19 related problems.
Duncan Bartlett is the editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a research associate at SOAS China Institute, University of London.