China gets chummy

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China gets chummy

Can South Korea and China become allies? North Korea has long been China’s fiercely protected ally, so South Korea and China sound like an odd couple. But some Chinese scholars are advising an upgrade in the bilateral ties. Alliances require a bilateral treaty. The advice comes from too authoritative a voice to be ignored.

One of the first figures to talk of the need for an alliance between South Korea and China is Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao preferred liberal scholars for his pool of academic advisers on foreign affairs. The best example has been Wang Jisi, former dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. Incumbent President Xi Jinping seeks advice from realists on foreign affairs. Yan is a key example. It wasn’t pure coincidence that Xi, when vice president, dropped in on the first World Peace Forum at Tsinghua University under the leadership of Yan in 2012. He is said to be the architect of Xi’s foreign strategy.

Yan first mentioned the need for elevated Seoul-Beijing ties in his book “Inertia of History (China and the World in Future Ten Years),” which was published last year. He elaborated on the need for a realigned relationship in various seminars during a visit to South Korea in April. Few paid heed to his remarks as they sounded too far-fetched. But recently the argument has been adopted by others. In a seminar sponsored by Aju University last month, Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University, argued that the two countries should sign a friendship and partnership agreement tantamount to an alliance treaty. Wang is a prolific writer who has contributed more than 500 articles to domestic and foreign media. He is also known to be close to the Chinese government.

What do they mean by an alliance? Under Yan’s notion, by 2023 the world would become bipolar, with the United States and China at each end. Their rivalry will depend on how many allies and friends they have. The United States currently has 42 allies, while China has none formally. Yan advises China to abandon nonalignment policy and seek diplomatic allies. South Korea should be one of them, he says.

A country can have more than one ally. Korea has in the past.

The Goryeo dynasty had separate alliances with the Liao Dynasty and the Northern Song Dynasty of China. The Joseon royal court had separate pacts with the Jin and Ming Dynasties of China. Yan cited these precedents to show there was no reason why Seoul should not have alliances with both the United States and China.

Wang used a more practical term. He urges China to strengthen diplomatic ties with countries in the region under a pact he calls a neighbor friendship cooperation pact. China should have such pacts with Russia, Pakistan, Asean and South Korea. He gives three reasons for the choice of South Korea. First of all, the Korean Peninsula is historically and strategically important for China for security reasons. Second, the new relationship with South Korea could be used as leverage against North Korea. Third, there is still room for Beijing to go between Seoul and Washington. He believes China could be the closest of these new allies and have a bigger say if the Korean Peninsula is unified.

Their arguments remain peripheral in academic society. China still has a lot of work to do on the diplomatic front. First of all, Beijing would have to change its mindset about diplomatic partnerships. Wang uses the term friendship for the diplomatic policy, but what he suggests is based on Sino-centralism.

But whether it is an alliance or friendship, what China wants is to break South Korea away from the United States. Beijing sees Washington as the biggest stumbling block to its rise. It believes Washington is behind the troubles it encounters with regional countries - even the democracy protests in the streets of Hong Kong, its own territory. It is working on various ideas to weaken U.S. power. On the diplomatic front, it believes a weaker South Korea-U.S. alliance will work in its favor. Beijing will likely continue with its charm offensive. We may have to decide to accept its embrace or keep it at a distance.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 15, Page 32

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul
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