Korea in the middle

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Korea in the middle

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Michael Green

A little over a century ago, the English geographer Halford Mackinder advanced the theory that whichever power controlled the Eurasian heartland would dominate the globe, while the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan argued that dominance of the seas was most important. With the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as natural buffers against the invasion of North America and trade as its primary intercourse with the world, the United States emerged in the 20th Century as a maritime power, like Britain before. Japan’s strategic culture is also defined by the maritime domain. In contrast, Russia and China are continental in outlook.

So which is Korea? Korea is a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by oceans and therefore vulnerable from both the continent of Asia and the East and West Seas. For most of its history, Korea was connected to the imperial Chinese system, though, and thus inclined towards a focus on the continental balance of power. And yet, when invasion came from Japan in the late 16th Century, Korea was ultimately victorious at sea under Admiral Yi Sun-sin.

As a democratic trading nation under the U.S. security umbrella after World War II, Korea was further drawn to a maritime identity. Korea, it seems, must be both a continental and a maritime power.

That dual identity came under pressure again in May at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Shanghai. Originally organized in 1999 by Kazakhstan, CICA was a sleepy organization until China took over as host this year and sought to turn the group into the centerpiece of a new Eurasian-based security system to counterbalance the strong network of U.S. maritime alliances in the Pacific. Korea came under enormous pressure from the Chinese government to sign on to a joint statement before the Shanghai meeting that included language calling for the end of blocs and alliances in Asia. In the end, other continental U.S. allies buckled under that pressure, but Korea rejected the Chinese proposal and the original draft statement was never released. (Instead, President Xi Jinping alluded to this new post-alliance security system in his keynote address).

Why did China think that Korea would sign such a statement in the first place? This is an important question for Korean foreign policy experts to consider. My guess is that Beijing saw the enormous economic relationship with Korea as trumping Korea’s security partnership and shared values with the United States. Beijing probably also read too much into the current bilateral difficulties with Japan over history. And perhaps viewed from China, Korea should be part of a continental system and not strongly connected to the maritime powers in Asia and the Pacific.

China is also undergoing its own internal debate about the future order in Asia. Increasingly, advisors around President Xi are arguing that there are “two orders” emerging in the world - one dominated by the West and the second as a counterbalance to that, including Russia and developing countries. This logic is dubious when one considers the failure of the BRICs and other similar groupings to get past strategic mistrust - for example between India and China.

Moreover, Chinese experts have no consensus on what the future order of Asia should look like. In the recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) survey of strategic elites in Asia, there was no doubt that Korean experts expect and prefer a U.S.-led order when given the alternatives of a Sino-centric Asia, U.S.-China joint influence, a multilateral East Asia community or a multi-polar Asia with counterbalancing states. American, Japanese and Australian experts strongly agreed.

In contrast, Chinese experts were much more divided. Only 10% of Chinese experts wanted a U.S.-led order in Asia, with the rest divided among the options of Sino-centrism, a U.S.-China joint arrangement, or a multilateral East Asian community.

The bottom line appears to be that China is not ready to lead, but prefers the emergence of an order that constrains the United States. In Shanghai, Korea made it clear that such devolution of the U.S. alliance system is unacceptable.

As in so many other areas, Korea stands as a fulcrum in international affairs. Where Xi appears to see the counterbalancing effects of a continental and maritime order in Asia - an opinion many Japanese experts would agree with from the other side of the coin - Korea seeks an integration of the maritime and continental systems as optimal. But being a fulcrum or a bridge is risky, since it can be seen as putting Korea in play for competition between both systems. It is a good thing for Korea - and frankly a useful thing for the United States - that President Park Geun-hye has the best relationship with President Xi of almost any leader in Asia and a better relationship than President Barack Obama has. It is not a good thing that Beijing thought Korea could be convinced to sign on to a statement in Shanghai that challenged the legitimacy of U.S. alliances in the region.

Navigating these treacherous waters will require Korea to recognize the geopolitical implications of being a peninsular power - both maritime and continental. It is time to embrace both Mahan and Mackinder.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.]

BY Michael Green


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