[OUTLOOK]Looking objectively at ChinaKoreans seem to think that they understand China quite well because it is a fellow coun- try of Confucian culture and tradition and more recently, an important trade partner with a rocketing growth rate. Although we didn’t establish official relations with China until 1992, we have maintained a cultural and historical relationship for centuries. Thus, we pride ourselves on analyzing China in a relatively accurate way. There have been changes, of course. The slogan “Let’s learn from the miracle of Han River” that became popular during the early stages of China’s reform and open-door policy has long been replaced by a “China rush” of Korean businesses relocating to China.
Nevertheless, one cannot help worrying whether Koreans are caught up in a state of seeing only the favorable and comfortable China we are used to. China is a country that has a considerable influence on the national security, mid-to-long-term economic growth and reunification of Korea. But it seems that we observe China in a different way than we do other powers of the world. When comparing our reactions to China, Japan and the United States, we react sensitively to the intentions of Japan and the United States. Yet we have a tendency to feel more lenient and friendly towards China for some reason.
While it is important to know the history of China’s reform and open-door policy and the traditional relationship between the two countries to understand China, there is a limit in reading China’s comprehensive intentions with only these tools. China is trying to establish itself as an economic power but, at the same time, it is vying to become a strategic power and the Asian superpower as well. It is also a country in a period of transition that in the worst case could disintegrate into a series of civil conflicts long-bred by the self-contradictions of its communist system.
The prospering China, the militarily powerful China, the China with a great influence on the reunification of Korea and the China with a mounting instability in its system are some of the many faces of China in the 21st century. Therefore, we must try to understand and study this multi-faced China and prepare ourselves for the many possible changes.
One of the most important changes in the last 20 years besides the dazzling economic growth was the fact that China no longer has to fear any security threat from the Eurasian continent. In the last decade, China achieved the diplomatic feat of normalizing relations with all the 14 countries it shares borders with, and as a result has found a strategic path to move toward becoming a naval power. Having eliminated or at least minimized the awkward relations with Russia, India and Vietnam, China is now turning its attention to the issues of Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula. China displays leisurely confidence over Taiwan, which it feels is bound to return to the mainland’s fold one day. On the divided Korean Peninsula, China seems to have a long-term goal of ultimately inducing the entire peninsula to enter its “Grand China” sphere of influence. China’s stage is no longer the Asian continent. It is the pan-Pacific region now.
But this Chinese master plan could be postponed or downsized if there were serious socio-political unrest caused by the deepening self-contradictions in its system. Although most Chinese lead more prosperous lives than ever before, like all the “Asian dragons,” China is bound to experience a movement towards democracy in earnest and it can no longer use the methods it did during the Tiananmen Square uprising to oppress the people’s demands for democracy, rule by law and liberalism.
Korea must search for a Korean-style “buffer policy” that could minimize China’s political, economic, military and social aftereffects on the Korean Peninsula by accurately understanding the two aspects of China, that of a rising China and also of a China confronted by internal challenges.
For the last 1,000 years, no Asian country has been more influenced by China’s light and shadow, either in a positive way or not, than Korea. It is time we learn to view China in a more objective and self-interested manner.
* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chung-min