Seoul’s balancing act

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Seoul’s balancing act


Victor Cha

“Korea has fallen into China’s orbit.” That was what was being whispered on the sidelines of a recent conference in Washington, D.C. among a group of Japan- and Southeast Asia-watchers. Indeed, the buzz around town is that the recent summit between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping reflected only the latest chapter of a narrative that details a growing affinity of Korea for its continental partner, China, and growing animosity toward its maritime neighbor, Japan. Some worry that this change of alignment is also having a negative impact on the U.S.-ROK alliance and posing a problem for the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.

As dramatic as this story may sound in the media and among pundits, I do not think it is the view of the serious policymaking community. Indeed, many in the community give the Park administration credit for doing what few Korean leaders could accomplish - having good relations with both China and the United States at the same time.

First, U.S. policymakers applauded the Park-Xi summit. There was no sense that Seoul would somehow abandon Washington in its dealings with Beijing. A growing understanding between Park and Xi on the future of the Korean Peninsula and how to deal with the unpredictable young leader in the North is something that is entirely in U.S. interests and only complements the dialogue that the United States is carrying out on with China.

More important, there is an element of trust in the U.S.-Korea relationship broadly and between the leaders in particular that undergirds the relationship. Obama has a personal chemistry with Park that he shares with few other leaders in the world. Yes, it is true that South Korea does more trade today with China than it does with Japan and the United States combined, but that is an economic fact that does not have strategic implications. Koreans may see their economic future with China, but they also see the strategic future aligned with the United States.

Second, U.S. policymakers noticed carefully the way that Korea dealt with the sensitive historical issues in its meetings with Xi. The Chinese have gone out of their way to try to align themselves with South Korea in jointly criticizing Japan on history. Building memorials to Korean patriots and fire-breathing speeches by the Chinese president at a local Korean university are just a couple of recent examples. But Seoul has been careful not to take the bait.

At the recent summit, Seoul rejected Chinese entreaties to include a formal statement about history and Japan in the joint statement, and Park listened politely to Chinese statements about Japan, but was not tempted to jump on the bandwagon. Instead, the principled view taken by the Koreans was noticed by the United States - i.e., Korea has its historical issues with Japan, but will seek its own sovereign solutions. As for the Japan-bashing sections of the speech by Xi at Seoul National University, rumor has it that the Koreans, despite numerous requests, were not given a text of the speech in advance.

Third, those who fret about Korea falling into China’s orbit do not take notice of small but important acts that demonstrate alliance strength. At the May Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures (CICA) summit, Seoul was the only U.S. ally that balked at language that Chinese hosts peddled which insinuated that the U.S. alliance system in Asia was anachronistic and unhelpful to regional security and confidence-building. It also appears as though Seoul is increasingly leaning toward a link-up with the U.S.-based missile defense system in the region, which would represent another step forward in military cooperation between the two allies. And negotiations look to be moving forward on a new nuclear cooperation agreement between the two parties. These are all signs of alliance strength, not decay.

Finally, there are many other independent variables that drive the interest in deepening ties with China, the least of which is the worsening relationship with Japan. Economic ties are one and the two leaders’ pronouncement of concluding an free trade agreement by the end of 2014 is ambitious.

But the primary driver is North Korea. Xi has met five times with Park while he has not yet met with the young leader in the North. This marks a departure from the traditional policy of “equidistance” that Beijing has always carefully nurtured between the two Koreas since normalization of ties with the South in 1992.

Clearly, the Chinese are unhappy, uncertain and apprehensive about the direction of the regime in Pyongyang. For the South Koreans, this is a moment when Seoul should try to improve relations with China and gain some mutual understanding on how to respond to future contingencies.

Of course, this does not mean that Beijing is willing to sell Pyongyang down the river. But it does mean that Seoul can try to gradually inch its large neighbor into viewing its future on the peninsula as tied to the South rather than through eternal propping up of the North. The biggest test of this strategy, however, has not yet come to pass. The next major North Korean provocation will test whether China lives up to South Korean expectations.

This is not to say that we should discount the difficulties in Seoul-Tokyo relations, which have become a strategic liability for regional stability. Neither party has done a good job in seeking to close the gap. Each should use the U.N. General Assembly in New York next month as an opportunity to bring the two leaders together. But anger toward Japan does not shape Korea’s policy to China.

* The author is professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

BY Victor Cha

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