[OUTLOOK]South Korea’s balancing act

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[OUTLOOK]South Korea’s balancing act

China will take center stage in Washington in a few days as President Hu Jintao arrives for a rare state visit with President Bush prior to the UN General Assembly meeting. Mr. Bush will make a return visit to Beijing this fall in conjunction with the APEC meeting in Busan in November. This intensive exchange of back-to-back visits symbolically underscores the importance of the U.S. relationship with a rising China. No other bilateral relationship has a bigger influence on Korea’s international environment or inter-Korean relations.
The American public has historically had a positive view of Chinese culture, but that perception is increasingly mixed with anxieties derived from the gap between the American and Chinese political systems and the perception that Americans are losing good jobs to unfair wage competition and currency exchange rates, economic factors that also affect South Korea. On Capitol Hill, concerns about China’s growing influence are as hostile as they were toward Japan in the late 1980s.
The second Bush administration has placed a high priority on managing relations with China. Secretary of State Rice has been in Beijing twice over the last six months and two new senior-level dialogues on global issues ― in addition to the ongoing six-party talks ― have recently been established in recognition that China now has global reach and responsibilities. As the complexity of the U.S.-China relationship has grown, these dialogues provide an increased capacity to manage complexities deriving from a broadening array of strategic issues. Even so, American and Chinese interests are unexpectedly clashing in far-flung locations such as Venezuela, Africa and Central Asia.
An objective of the newly established senior-level Sino-U.S. global dialogues in tandem with the Bush administration’s strengthened relationships with Japan, Australia and India is to shape China’s choices so as to steer it toward integration with the existing status quo rather than challenging the existing order. Notably, China is for the first time developing a capacity to shape the regional context and choices the United States must make as well ― for example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s critique of a U.S. presence in Central Asia and Uzbekistan’s subsequent demand that the United States vacate within six months an important air base that had provided critical support for the war on terror in Afghanistan.
The relationship will not develop as a second Cold War. The intensity of Sino-U.S. economic interdependence is very different from the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, where there was an all-out economic and political competition. Even with the American development of a missile defense system, China will maintain its limited deterrent without resorting to a nuclear arms race. However, both militaries are planning for a potential conflict over Taiwan despite the catastrophic costs that would arise from such a war.
Rather, the greater long-term threat to the United States might be that China’s exploding consumer market would displace the United States as the global market of last resort. Could China beat the United States at the game of capitalism? It remains to be seen whether China and the United States will successfully manage economic conflicts in a relationship on which the health of the global economy now depends.
South Korea clearly benefits from relative harmony in Sino-U.S. relations, especially given the fact that South Korea has depended on China as an engine for economic growth while relying on the alliance with the United States for its security. Some may wonder whether these two relationships may eventually come into conflict. For instance, what choices would South Korea face if China pushes alternative security arrangements as a challenge to the American-led bilateral alliance system?
Few consider, however, that just as a downturn in the U.S.-China relationship would present South Korea with unpalatable choices, too much cooperation between the United States and China, i.e., a concert of powers, might also constrain Korean choices. For instance, it appeared to some observers in early 2003 that the United States might bypass Seoul to deal primarily with China as the key to solving the North Korea issue. Interestingly, it was Kim Jong-il’s decision to include the nuclear issue as part of North-South relations in his conversations with South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young last June that empowered South Korea to play a more active role in the latest round of six-party talks.
The North Korean nuclear issue will no doubt be near the top of the Bush-Hu agenda. The immediate challenge and opportunity will be whether Mr. Hu can find a way to use summit diplomacy with both Mr. Bush and Kim Jong-il to advance a consensus on how to achieve North Korea;s denuclearization. Despite a near-term U.S.-China coincidence of views, however, the respective long-term visions of the United States and China toward the Korean Peninsula may conflict, making South Korea’s high-wire balancing act between the United States and China even more difficult in the future.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed here are personal views.

by Scott Snyder
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