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Indo-Pacific

Moon weighs 'Quad lite' at Biden summit

South Korea president walks fine line between US and China

U.S. President Joe Biden is due to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the White House on Friday. (Biden photo by Getty/Kyodo, Moon photo by Yonhap/Kyodo)

SEOUL -- When South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets U.S. President Joe Biden in the White House on Friday, the two are likely to discuss ways for Seoul to cooperate with the Quad.

The U.S. has sought South Korea's further cooperation in its policies addressing China. But Seoul aims to keep ties with the Quad -- a loose alliance among the U.S., Japan, India and Australia -- at a level that avoids drawing a forceful response from Beijing.

During the four-way summit held online in March, the Quad leaders decided to establish three working groups focused on vaccines, advanced technology and climate change.

Washington has been urging South Korea and other relevant nations to join these working groups, according to a diplomatic source. The Moon administration is considering passing on joining the Quad outright while taking part in the working groups.

The two sides continue to discuss the summit's agenda via back channels.

The Quad, short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is based on the shared values of freedom and democracy that look to serve as a counterweight against China's rising military and economic clout.

Although the U.S. is South Korea's sole alliance partner, the Moon administration has aimed to strike a diplomatic course in which Seoul is not fully aligned with either the U.S. or China.

The South Korea government has kept the Quad at arm's length in light of the strong counter-China characteristics, saying it has never received a request to join the framework. But with the U.S. repeatedly asking for assistance, it appears Seoul is leaning toward the idea that some kind of involvement will be necessary.

In return for the limited engagement with the Quad, Moon seeks to draw from Biden a positive response on a swift resumption of talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The South Korean president first plans to confirm that the Biden administration will stand by the joint statement signed by former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018.

The document says that North Korea "commits to work towards complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." Should the North move in that direction, South Korea seeks to build consensus around a phased denuclearization that would include eased sanctions as part of the incentives.

U.S. support for vaccine supplies to South Korea will also be on the agenda during Friday's summit. Moon has weathered criticism for delays in procuring vaccines. Seoul aims to administer the first round of shots to 70% of the population by September, but that goal looks shaky.

The U.S. has indicated it will prioritize Quad nations when it comes to vaccine supplies. Washington is seen determining the scope of vaccine assistance to South Korea based on Seoul's stance toward the Quad.

Whether South Korea receives meaningful support on vaccines will factor heavily in the presidential election next spring. Some experts believe Moon will be compelled to cooperate with the Quad due to those political calculations.

Seoul is also prepared to cooperate with the U.S. on the semiconductor supply chain, with executives from Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix set to accompany Moon to Washington. The entourage is expected to participate in a U.S. Department of Commerce meeting on Thursday and describe plans for investments and stabilizing supplies.

If South Korea does draw closer to the Quad, it would elicit a reaction from China. Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, has likened the Quad to an Indo-Pacific version of NATO.

When Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, decided to deploy the U.S.-made THAAD missile shield in 2016, China retaliated through harsh economic actions, such as limiting group travel to South Korea.

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