Koreans worry that the conflict between the United States and China will force them to choose between a military ally and their most important economic partner. Although this view of the current situation is accurate, it is only part of the problem. In fact, Korea is also faced with a profound choice about how it defines economics and the future of civilization itself.
The recent meeting between United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese President Xi Jinping was ostensibly about planning for the upcoming visit of President Donald Trump to Beijing and discussing how China can increase economic pressure on North Korea.
But these two individuals could not be more different in their motives and backgrounds. Rex Tillerson is an unprecedented secretary of state, someone with zero political, governmental, academic or diplomatic experience. As the former CEO of Exxon, Tillerson was directly involved in the cover-up of climate change and the pursuit of profits from petroleum regardless of its impact on the environment.
Since his appointment, he has been ruthless in gutting the State Department, removing any senior diplomats who might offer even the slightest resistance ― and many have quit of their own accord.
By contrast, Xi Jinping has spent his entire career in government and has an intimate understanding of policy and practice. Under his leadership, China has declared that healthcare is a human right and he has spoken out about desertification.
But a more important decision of President Xi’s is to focus on climate change and the environment as national policy at the very moment that the United States is leaving the Paris Agreement and going back on its previous promises.
Xi has spoken repeatedly about the critical importance of an “ecological civilization” for the future of China, and of the Earth. This isn’t empty talk. The Chinese government has committed to solar and wind power on a scale unmatched by any other country and strict regulations requiring electric automobiles are being implemented at a remarkable speed across the country.
The embodiment of this shift is the phrase President Xi frequently invokes, “blue water and green mountains are like mountains of silver and gold.” (绿水青山就是金山银山）
The phrase implies that protecting the environment and creating a civilization that is in harmony with nature is such a priority that has absolute value in itself. Nature has a value equal to profits or assets. Xi Jinping suggests that the value of nature is absolute and that it must be considered as part of what defines the economy. He is opening the door for the return of ethical concerns to economic policy and going against the IMF consensus.
In a sense, the phrase may have as much historical import as Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s remark, “I don’t care if a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice” （不管黑猫白猫，能捉老鼠就是好猫）.
Whereas Deng Xiaoping implied that we should not assess people in ideological terms, but rather in terms of their effectiveness, Xi suggests that there must be an ethical component to the economy that includes the natural environment.
He is subtly moving the discourse towards a more general critique of the narrow concept of value and the economy embraced by the entire Bretton Woods system, and hinting at a more profound transformation of the principles by which we govern the world.
There are many around the world who have been waiting for someone of the stature of Xi to make such an argument, and if China will seriously take on the contradictions within the concept of growth at this moment, its global leadership role will soar.
The concept of “ecological civilization” has gained general acceptance and we can anticipate even more ambitious policies to move away from fossil fuel as a national strategy after the Communist Party Congress.
The United States under Trump, however, is running backwards, embracing even coal and rejecting even the weakly-worked Paris Agreement. Tillerson embodies the breakdown of governance in the United States. A man who knows only the oil business and has no experience with diplomacy, helping to formulate national strategy based on fossil fuels.
This choice for Korea is serious. All indications are that Korea has already made a fatal mistake. We are falling behind in the development of electric batteries because Korea has not moved quickly to invest and make sure that the domestic market goes electric, and Korea has to secure large-scale contracts in China.
Picking a dying carbon-based economic system at this moment could be a far more serious problem than the short-term response to the abstract threat of a nuclear war with North Korea. Korea should keep its eyes focused on what is critical, not what shows up frequently on television.