Trouble with the neighbor

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Trouble with the neighbor

I recently attended a conference among opinion leaders of South Korea and China. Influential figures were invited by a South Korean state think tank. The conversation opened on an amicable note, and many of the participants expressed satisfaction with the cozier relationship between the two countries following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Seoul in July. But when panelists from both sides started discussing one particular theme, the mood suddenly soured. The topic was the reported plan to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system in Korea.

The U.S. plan to deploy the anti-ballistic missile system designed to shoot down incoming short, middle, and intermediate weapons has been a thorny issue between the two countries. At the conference, a former senior Chinese diplomat raised the issue with considerable anger, saying he has heard that Seoul would agree to station the missile system in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, as a plan to delay U.S. transfer of wartime control of forces to South Korea. He accused Seoul of surrendering defense sovereignty to Washington and also warned that the Thaad system in Korea will seriously damage Seoul-Beijing relations.

Korean delegates responded with similarly high spirits. Seoul agreed to the U.S. missile defense posture and a stronger alliance with the U.S. because of the North Korean nuclear threat, they said. They said it was inappropriate to say Seoul had abandoned its own sovereignty when discussing the issues of wartime control and Thaad. Seoul makes its defense decisions purely for its benefit and its own interests. Some made the point that China really shouldn’t meddle in South Korean defense affairs.

The Chinese side, however, didn’t let go of the topic easily. One retired senior military official said Beijing respects Seoul’s sovereignty in military decisions as well as its alliance with Washington, but any kind of joint deterrence against North Korea should not also be an insult to China. He claimed putting Thaad in Pyeongtaek was a threat to China. Beijing cannot agree to the plan because China could be a target for the ballistic missile system by American forces in Korea. He also added that China is now a global power and won’t tolerate South Korea giving less respect to China than the United States.

Amidst such fury, I felt the Seoul government must make its position clear on the Thaad deployment plan. The Defense Ministry has so far maintained that Washington has not formerly requested that Korea deploy the missile system. In recent parliamentary questioning, Ahn Ho-young, ambassador to the United States, said the idea had been discussed but formal talks on deployment never took place. Yet the U.S. Defense Department talks of the plan as a done deal. The ambiguity from Seoul has only irked Beijing more. Seoul can’t be coy about the issue. It would be better to admit to the plan and seek Beijing’s understanding.

Korea also does not have to take its status as a small country emotionally. The fact that China is a superpower is no exaggeration. We owe much to the United States for our progress and stability over the last six decades. But the next six decades may hinge on our relationship with China. It doesn’t mean that we should ride on China’s coattails. But a one-sided diplomatic framework won’t work. We must realign our diplomatic posture in a more balanced fashion. A knee-jerk distrust of Beijing because of Cold War memories will do us little good.

Beijing too must watch its words and action. Few Koreans have forgotten how Korean dynasties were forced to pay tributes and obeisance to mighty Chinese courts in the past. Their talk of being a “big power” does not fit today’s global attitude that says all countries should respect others’ sovereignty. President Xi has said economic and military might alone cannot win friends. He promised China will reach out to neighbors with compassion and sincerity. China must keep the temptation of sino-centralism at bay if it wants to become a global power.

During the heated debate, I realized that the two countries have a long way to go to trust one another. There is no simple solution to narrowing the gap. The closer the two countries get, the greater the chances for friction.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 20, Page 35

The author is a political science professor of Yonsei Unviersity.

by Moon Chung-in

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