[Outlook]In China’s shadowThe opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a magnificent event, full of brilliant colors and performances that epitomize the country’s rich traditions, dynamic present and promising future. The ceremony was absolutely incredible, overwhelming the 4 billion viewers around the world. One Washington Post columnist even commented that London, the host of the 2012 Olympics, should not even try to compete with Beijing in its opening ceremony.
But what lingers in my mind after watching the awe-inspiring spectacle was an intense curiosity about what the massive energy and power of China will turn into.
People around the world have forecast that the Olympics is the catalyst for China to become a fully modern society and enter a new era of newfound but long-anticipated prosperity.
Then where will China go?
The country now faces a choice between aggressive nationalism and cooperative nationalism. And the peace and order on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and the world will heavily depend on China’s choice between these two options.
China’s hostile stance on Tibetans’ efforts for independence is based on deep-rooted Chinese anger against Western imperialism, under which it was invaded and controlled in the 19th century.
This means the Chinese will no longer tolerate any attempts to interfere in its territorial sovereignty and integrity. Also, China’s Communist Party has fanned nationalistic and anti-Western sentiment among the Chinese public in order to cling to power.
But international politics will inevitably face significant turbulence if China opts to pursue such aggressive nationalism based on anger. For one thing, China and the U.S. will experience a head-on clash, repeating the political upheaval after 1870 when the newly unified Germany challenged then-global powerhouse Britain, eventually triggering World War I. China is likely to beef up its military might while brushing aside the international community’s pressure to improve its human rights credentials.
At the same time, several East Asian countries may form an anti-China alliance, which will inevitably make Japan nervous. Japan, in turn, will strengthen its military capability while further enhancing ties with the United States.
Democratic countries including the U.S., Japan, Australia and India may form a democratic alliance, and growing amity between the U.S. and Europe may prompt China and Russia to form a closer partnership than ever before. More pro-democracy movements, ethnic conflicts and territorial disputes will ensue, further undermining the region’s peace and stability.
South Korea will be left with a tough choice to either continue its decades-long alliance with the United States or to side with its powerhouse neighbor, China.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and other obstacles to peace in the Korean Peninsula may remain unresolved amid intensifying clashes between Beijing and Washington. But the situation will hardly be easy for North Korea either, since it also faces a daunting balancing act between China, its traditional ally, and the American superpower.
But it is possible to paint a more upbeat picture if China seeks to forge more cooperative relations with its global peers. If so, the Chinese government will steadily embrace public aspirations for a more democratic society in line with the nation’s newfound wealth, instead of triggering more nationalistic sentiment to divert their attention.
The country will also forge more cooperative relations with Western countries urging China to improve its human rights record, and respect international protocols and custom.
That way China can achieve its two main goals of rapid economic growth along with political integrity.
In Northeast Asia, the United States, China and Japan will also establish triangular alliances and cement international mechanisms to promote better cooperation for the economy and national security.
Such a political climate will also help South Korea better solve issues on North Korea and establish peace on the Korean Peninsula.
For good or bad, we have no choice but to live with our powerful neighbor China, whose territory is 97 times the size of South Korea and whose population is 27 times larger than ours. No matter what political path China chooses, it will inevitably pose new challenges or opportunities to the Korean Peninsula.
This means South Korea should be more flexible, swift and integrated in order to better respond to such changes, like the Netherlands, which is surrounded by Europe’s major powerhouses. But is it only me who thinks that South Korea is rather slow, stiff and divisive?
South Korea, which is situated next to some of the most capitalist-minded people in the world in China, has been working to ease regulations and forge cooperative labor-management relations to little avail. While China, after setting aside ideological disputes a long time ago, is making intensive efforts, South Korea is still sharply divided between left and right ideologies.
Where do we stand in this rapidly changing global landscape and transformation of our neighbor China into a global giant?
*The writer is a professor of international politics at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Yoon Young-kwan