[Viewpoint] The China dilemmaTension has been elevated between Washington and Beijing over China’s first aircraft carrier, the rebuilt Soviet vessel the Varyag. Of course, China’s aircraft carrier does not pose a direct military threat to the United States. However, China’s military strategy is not measured in a simple comparison of physical strength.
China’s possession of an aircraft carrier has especially significant implications for Korea. When military tension was elevated on the Korean Peninsula last year, the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington was sent to the East Sea, and China strongly opposed its arrival. China claimed that the Pacific Ocean was no longer the sole domain of the United States, suggesting that the Korea-U.S. alliance was a relic of the cold war.
The USS George Washington and China’s Varyag will not clash in the East Sea in the near future, but the two countries may someday contest the post-cold-war dominance of the waters around the Korean Peninsula. That was the dream of the late Chinese navy commander Liu Huaqing, who is known as the father of China’s aircraft carrier ambitions. This complicated situation is a strategic reality to Korea, as we recalled on Aug. 24, the 19th anniversary of diplomatic relations being opened with China.
Diplomatic and military relations between Korea and China have produced plenty of disappointments and frustrations, and Korea has its share of the fault. We experienced disappointment and frustration since we had high expectations. Perhaps, it was only natural considering that China emerged as our biggest partner in many areas, including trade and investment.
However, it is also true that Korea’s strategic decisions were blurred by the fact that the two countries have yet to get over the cold war diplomatically and militarily. In the end, we had faulty expectations from China. We failed to understand the turmoil involved in China’s internal changes and its delicate strategic balance with the United States and North Korea.
In China’s foreign policy, the most important variable is the United States, and Korea is in alliance with the U.S. The alliance with the U.S. has the highest priority in Korea’s strategic planning. Therefore, Seoul sits in a strategically complicated place between the U.S. and China.
There are various solutions. We could pursue our alliance with the U.S. and, at the same time, harmony with China. The underlying premise is that Korea will maintain balanced relations with both the U.S. and China and seek mutual prosperity.
However, Seoul has only been advocating balance without developing a strategy or foreign policy to get to that goal. Historically speaking, the most challenging direction of diplomacy is maintaining neutrality. It is not surprising that Korea has been confused and has failed to find the right place between a strategic ally, the U.S., and a strategic cooperative partner, China, despite much discussion of the issue. Developing successful diplomatic relationships is complicated and takes time.
Just as the thick ice of the winter does not freeze overnight, China’s North Korean policy was created over an extended period of time. It does not mean that Beijing and Pyongyang have always shared strategic understanding and maintained friendly relations.
Last spring, I met many Chinese experts while staying at Harvard University as a visiting professor, and they emphasized that China often takes North Korea’s side not entirely because it is fond of North Korea. An expert who had been in charge of China affairs at the White House said that the distrust between Beijing and Pyongyang was unbelievably serious.
North Korea also wants to keep its distance from China. Jonathan Pollack, who published “No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security” in June, concluded that the motivation behind North Korea’s nuclear development and its approach to the United States was to put a check on China.
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Korea-China relations. We have been constantly asking ourselves what China means to Korea, but we have not been able to come up with a clear answer.
But in a way, that is natural. It is not that the question is invalid but rather there is no absolutely right answer. Instead of looking for a clear solution to the Korea-China relationship, it would be wiser for Korea to prepare itself for a range of various strategic possibilities.
*The writer, a former ambassador to China, is a professor at Dong-A University.
By Chung Chong-wook