Beijing’s overturesI recently stopped by a Beijing bookstore patronized by Chinese intellectuals located between Peking and Tsinghua universities. Three books on Korean President Park Geun-hye were displayed next to “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” written by Harvard University professor Ezra Vogel, which sold 650,000 copies in China, making it a major best-seller. President Park’s own memoir ascended to the top 10 recently after remaining within the top 20 best-sellers in the non-fiction section when it was first released in May. This obviously suggests that Park’s popularity in China was not a passing phenomenon as a result of her state visit in June.
It is unusual for a South Korean president to gain so much attention from the Chinese public. Chinese intellectuals attribute it not only to the recent successful summit between Park and her Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in June but also to general Chinese expectations for Asia’s first female president. Beijing anticipates more cooperation and eagerness from Seoul to solve the North Korean nuclear weapons program issue under a new South Korean leader. And improved inter-Korean ties as a result of the “trust-building” process championed by President Park could pave the way for six-party talks and improvement in North Korea-U.S. relations.
The Chinese are hopeful that Park’s vision to build a cooperative peace framework in Northeast Asia can help to remove the ideological vestiges of the Cold War era from this part of the world. They do not expect South Korea to choose China over the United States, but they still see some room for a joint front against Japan.
First of all, Koreans and the Chinese are united in their complaints against Japan’s stand on issues of history and territory. The Chinese demand a joint front with South Korea to deal with Japanese politicians’ repeated provocations by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals from World War II are honored, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial remarks on past aggressions, and the so-called comfort women or sex slaves. They also suggest joint actions on the global stage to resolve territorial disputes over the Dokdo islets and Diaoyu Islands as they too are byproducts of Japan’s past military aggressions.
Second, both countries are worried about Japan’s military buildup. Japan’s plan to exercise its right to collective self-defense with the endorsement of the U.S. government and a stronger bilateral security alliance with Washingotn could undermine multilateral cooperation for security in the region. Japan has also turned passive toward a tripartite free trade agreement by pursuing a separate regional economic bloc with the United States. Abenomics - with its beggar-thy-neighbor features - could jeopardize regional economic stability.
Third, Tokyo has irked Seoul and Beijing with a blunt snub. It has sent an obvious message that it doesn’t need summit talks with South Korea or China. It feels safe enough with the United States on its side and believes South Korea will eventually seek its help in times of emergency. Beijing wants closer ties with Seoul as it obviously cannot expect better relations with Tokyo under the leadership of Abe.
The general belief among Chinese intellectuals appears to be valid. Beijing may have a bigger motive in seeking closer ties with South Korea - serving its vision to change the geopolitical order in Northeast Asia. What Beijing fears most is a joint front among traditional security allies, meaning South Korea, the United States and Japan. Its regional stance could be at risk if South Korea signs a treaty with Japan on exchanging confidential military information or establishing a stronger three-way missile defense system with the United States and Japan. Beijing may secretly be smiling at the recent fissure in the traditional tripartite alliance stemming from strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
China is beckoning South Korea while Japan is pushing Korea toward China. Under such circumstances, Washington demands Seoul mend ties with Tokyo. Park and her foreign affairs team appear indecisive and uncomfortable in this complicated relationship. Seoul cannot simply cozy up to Beijing and jointly gang up against Tokyo. Seoul also cannot turn down flat advances from Beijing.
But the dilemma suggests a solution in Seoul’s grasp. Seoul currently has the confidence of both Washington and Beijing. Park should prove herself different from her predecessors by acting out her vision of the trust-building process and working on a regional peace and cooperation network to demonstrate genuine leadership in order to provide a real breakthrough in the region’s current deadlock.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in