South Korea's middle-power diplomacy

BEIJING • Last week, South Korean President Park Geun Hye, despite opposition from her country's closest ally, the United States, stood alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tiananmen Square to watch a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Asia. The move provided the most visible image yet of an emerging alliance between China and South Korea - one that China believes could prevent the region from sliding into cold war.

The region's other major actors - the US, Japan and even North Korea - look upon this blossoming friendship with dread. Washington worries that China is driving a wedge between America's strongest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, thus undermining the capacity of the US to offset China's rising military power.

Likewise, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is concerned that his country's closest neighbour is drifting into China's orbit. Indeed, Ms Park has consistently spurned Mr Abe by refusing to hold a bilateral summit with him, in protest over Japan's alleged historical revisionism, particularly with regard to Korean "comfort women", who served as sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII.

Ms Park Geun Hye (left) being welcomed by Mr Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan on Sept 3 at Tiananmen Square, where a military parade was held to commemorate the end of World War II.
Ms Park Geun Hye (left) being welcomed by Mr Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan on Sept 3 at Tiananmen Square, where a military parade was held to commemorate the end of World War II. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

For North Korea - which already has to contend with South Korea's alliance with the US, including seemingly endless joint military exercises - the South's budding friendship with China, the North's long-time ally, probably seems even more threatening. That might explain why, just a few hours after Ms Park's trip to China was announced, the two Koreas traded artillery fire. Fortunately, they quickly reached a deal - probably brokered by China - to end the military stand-off.

But they are likely to see a new round of turbulence soon. An upcoming celebration in the North to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea will reportedly entail a large-scale military parade and a ballistic missile test.

According to Dr Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, North Korea will have 20 warheads in its nuclear arsenal by next year; it also plans to move rapidly to develop its capacity to miniaturise nuclear weapons.

In this context, it seems likely that historical grievances with Japan are far from the only issue driving South Korea towards China.

America's failure to push urgently for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula - a stance that stands in stark contrast to the concerted efforts made to reach a nuclear deal with Iran - is a serious problem for the South. China seems more important than ever to South Korea's hopes of restarting the long-stalled six-party talks to address the nuclear threat from North Korea.

To be sure, South Korea and China remain deeply divided over their policies towards North Korea. Nonetheless, denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, which is key to ensuring long-term regional stability, is in the interests of both countries - as well as Japan.

None of this means that South Korea is abandoning the US in favour of China. Rather, Ms Park wants South Korea to serve as a bridge between the two powers.

China seems to appreciate her middle-power diplomacy, because it has an economic interest in avoiding the emergence of two rival blocs in Asia - an interest that is reflected in Mr Xi's upcoming state visit to the US.

In the past, such visits have often coincided with significant strides in bilateral cooperation. Mr Xi's trip to Seoul last year saw South Korea pledge support for the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) - again, over US objections. And in June this year, the two countries signed a free-trade agreement.

China viewed America's strong resistance to the AIIB - which Washington considered a clear challenge to US- and Japan-led international financial institutions - as an overreaction that reflected an American tendency to view nearly all China-related policies through the lens of strategic competition. Indeed, it seems that an "anything but China" mentality prevails among many US decision-makers, whether in economic or security affairs.

Even as China's leaders seek to deepen ties with a variety of countries, including the US, American policymakers view South Korea's pursuit of closer ties with China as a direct threat to their country's regional primacy. That is why the US has been pressing South Korea to express more explicitly its opposition to China's behaviour regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The US approach is gravely misguided. As former diplomat Thomas Christensen points out in his recent book, The China Challenge, Beijing "has major incentives to avoid unnecessary conflict". The problem is that the US lacks experience in "persuading a uniquely large developing country with enormous domestic challenges and a historical chip on its national shoulder to cooperate actively with the international community".

In other words, the "zero sum" mentality of US policymakers is not only wrong, it is also impeding America's ability to harness China's influence to enhance, rather than undermine, regional stability.

In late May, at the 14th Asian Security Summit, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter called for a "shared regional architecture" that would enable all Asia-Pacific countries to rise peacefully. That is the right approach.

But such an architecture will be impossible to achieve as long as the US is pressuring its allies to alienate, if not antagonise, China.

The US should be encouraging allies such as South Korea, Australia and Thailand (but not Japan or the Philippines, given their involvement in territorial conflicts with China) to engage further with China. Only then can the US secure China's cooperation in confronting urgent regional challenges, and win its commitment to a rules-based and inclusive regional order.


• The writer is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing, an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China and a member of the China National Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2015, with the headline 'South Korea's middle-power diplomacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe