Park’s diplomatic priorityThe first Sino-Japanese War ended with Japan’s victory after its Navy wiped out the Beiyang Fleet of the Qing Dynasty in the Battle of the Yalu River on Sept. 17, 1894. With China’s last empire already on the verge of collapse after its defeat in the first Opium War in 1842, Asia’s order was shifted from Pax Sinica to a hegemony by Japan that can be called anything but peaceful.
With its recent rise as an economic superpower, China is presenting a vigorous challenge to the U.S. to win back its position as Asia’s leader, which it surrendered in the late 19th century to Europe, the U.S. and Japanese imperialism. One of the challenges is China’s territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines in the East and South China Seas.
Targeting America, China has conducted anti-ship ballistic missile tests aimed at attacking U.S. aircraft carriers, launched the development of stealth fighter jets, and it doesn’t hesitate to carry out cyberattacks against key infrastructure of the United States. China has also developed a submarine armed with strategic ballistic missiles capable of attacking the U.S. mainland way beyond Alaska and Hawaii.
To counter China’s challenges, the United States announced a new strategy of “Air-Sea Battle” in November 2011 to signal the opening of a new era in U.S.-China security relations. In early 2011, U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton warned of its return to tough stances in its policies toward China, followed by U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration of a “Pivot to Asia” in September 2011.
The new strategy of Washington included a wide range of specific plans: a joint operation of Navy and Air Force to counter Chinese anti-ship missiles; improvement of the functions of military satellites; development of cyberattack abilities targeting Chinese naval vessels; attacks on major targets in China by the Navy, Air Force and Marines; and development of new manned and unmanned long-range bombers.
The U.S. reaffirmed its determination to check China’s challenges over the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands and built a multilayered security cooperation network with Southeast Asian nations. Thanks in part to the security demand of the United States, the U.S.-Korea alliance has enjoyed its prime for the past five years, but the Korea-China relationship often had hiccups.
After removing the “peaceful rise” mask it has worn for many years, China made challenges in military realms and diplomacy to reshape the U.S.-dominated order in Asia. This amounts to a new strategy of exerting rough and strong pressures on its opponents or rivals. In short, it is a pursuit of a mighty China.
The prospect of resolving the nuclear crisis in North Korea are not at all bright when looked at from the Pacific, where the geopolitical waves are cresting high. When the strategic interests of the U.S., Japan and China collide, the strategic value of North Korea — which pressures South Korea and Japan from behind — goes up. China is reluctant to join the international community’s sanctions on the North, even though it conducted nuclear and missile tests that were prohibited. Within the framework of multilateral negotiations, it gets difficult for Beijing to take positions Pyongyang opposes.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the Liberal Democratic Party successfully regained power thanks to the consolidation of Japan’s conservative forces over the cause of nationalism after the deterioration of Korea-Japan and China-Japan relations. He is now quickly responding to the U.S. government’s dramatic shift in China policy and efforts to strengthen its Asia-Pacific strategies. For his first overseas trip after inauguration, Abe chose Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia to actively support the U.S.-led encirclement policy toward China.
The U.S. will pressure the new administrations in South Korea and Japan to hurry to build a security cooperation regime. But South Korea should decline joining Washington’s containment policy toward China. Although South Korea’s security is overwhelmingly reliant on the United States, its overall security regime will remain incomplete without strategic cooperation with China given the North Korea factor.
Our room to breathe can be found in improving inter-Korean relations. Only when South-North relations get better can we have room for independent diplomacy — based on our national interests — with the U.S. and China. Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is in desperate need of economic reconstruction while the Obama administration nominated dovish figures as new secretaries of state and defense. The incoming administration of Park Geun-hye will have to come up with a North Korea policy different from the Lee Myung-bak administration, which did nothing but sink inter-Korean relations to their lowest point. It won’t be wishful thinking that North Korea can be guided to a set of meaningful talks when the interests of the three governments converge. The Park government must hurry to resuscitate the now-defunct intelligence line with North Korea and build a pipeline toward Pyongyang, within six months of her inauguration. Park needs to make a bold move such as lifting the May 24 sanctions and normalizing the operations of the Mount Kumgang resort and Kaesong Industrial Complex.
The first Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War decided the fate of the Joseon Dynasty, yet it did nothing but sit with folded arms as an observer and accepted the new order without any resistance. The new Sino-American rivalry will give birth to a new order for the Asia era. Today’s Korea is not the Joseon Dynasty of the late 19th century and early 20th century. It is a country with its own voice that is respected in the international community. With its geopolitical location still in the center of the four superpowers — the United States, China, Japan and Russia — Korea is now facing the opportunity to maximize its national interests. The incoming Park administration must create human resources and whip up a diplomatic line to engage in the fierce yet balanced strategic diplomacy that is required for Asia, specifically Northeast Asia and, of course, Korea today.