[Viewpoint] The enigma that is China

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[Viewpoint] The enigma that is China

Sun Qi Rui, a former National Taiwan University professor and an expert on South Korean and Chinese affairs, used to say: “To understand the Chinese way of thinking, one must be able to delve into their inner thoughts.”

The Chinese like to see things in a broad and long-term context, and refrain from making quick judgments. In contrast, South Koreans are quick actors, preferring to have work done rapidly and all at once if possible.

There is no better example of the stark difference between the two countries’ ways of dealing with important affairs, especially between themselves, than the Cheonan sinking.

Since ancient times, Chinese politicians have been habitually ambiguous and figurative in their speech, rarely making direct comments, according to professor Sun, who served as an interpreter at summit meetings between President Park Chung Hee and Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chinese politicians often quote a famous bromide by a poet and statesman of the Song Dynasty, Ouyang Xiu: “The Old Drunkard’s [Ouyang’s nickname] wishes are not in the wine.” The poet and his friends often visited a pavilion with a view down a mountain, but the real purpose of the visit for the poet was to be intoxicated by the natural beauty, not the wine - an axiom suggesting that what things may seem to be are not what they really are.

Chinese State Councillor Tang Jia-xuan, returning from a visit to Pyongyang soon after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006, cited the same “Old Drunkard” quote to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s true intentions.

Interpretations varied, but many considered the quote to mean that Kim had sought improved ties with the U.S. by displaying his nuclear clout rather than trying to become a nuclear powerhouse.

But this may only be Beijing’s interpretation, and not how Pyongyang views the issue. Peking University professor Zhu Feng also agreed that North Korea’s ultimate goal is to normalize ties with the U.S., and that it will eventually relinquish its nuclear weapons program for that purpose.

China’s way of thinking has been manifested clearly through its response to the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan. As South Korea and the U.S. aggressively sought international condemnation of the North after a multinational investigation concluded that a North Korean torpedo sunk the ship, China maintained its belief that the Old Drunkard’s intention is not in the wine.

South Koreans were forcing drinks (the Cheonan facts) on the Drunkard (Beijing), when Beijing obviously had other ideas in mind.

When the United Nations Security Council delivered a half-hearted condemnation without directly blaming North Korea for the attack, Japanese media commented that South Korea had been defeated by a China-backed North Korea in its Cheonan diplomacy.

South Korean diplomats who vowed to seek a strong response congratulated themselves for getting a unanimous Security Council statement. The perspective and strategic approach of our diplomats in the process was far from assuring. But then again, are we ready to clash with China?

South Koreans once caught up in the so-called China Fever suddenly resorted to China Bashing after the Cheonan disaster. China turned equally hostile. The air around the Korean Peninsula smells of Cold War-era tension. South Korea-U.S. ties are stronger than ever against the tightly knit North Korea-China front, but it is very difficult to sit down quietly with the Chinese to discuss diplomacy given such circumstances.

But bilateral ties are losing meaning in today’s international context. South Korea’s relationship with the U.S. cannot be seen separately from its dealings with China. If the U.S. is still our most vital ally in security issues, China is our most important economic partner, as trade with the country beats the volume of our trade with the U.S. and Japan combined.

Korea-U.S. ties cannot be considered without including China in the equation and the same goes for the Korea-China equation with the U.S.

Professor Zhu believes China and South Korea have yet to clash over national interests, mainly because Seoul still knows little about the Chinese. The players should study and know each other before waging a game with national interests at stake.

Uichiro Niwa, the former president of Itochu Corp. who recently was named as Japan’s new ambassador to China, used to say the Chinese value trust most when doing business.

Before pushing bilateral ties to the breaking point, it would be wise to broaden our spectrum by endeavoring to build trust between the two countries. It’s the best we can do, given our position on the tightrope between the world’s two superpowers.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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