Does Korea face a China choice?

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Does Korea face a China choice?


If Korea were located in any other part of the world - including Europe - it would be a major international actor. And it increasingly is. But as all Koreans know, Northeast Asia is a difficult neighborhood, sitting at the intersection of a number of great powers whose influence has waxed and sometimes waned: Japan, Russia and now China. And Korea has a long-standing relationship with the United States.

China’s rise raises a fundamental question for Korean foreign policy. Does Korea face a “China choice?” Does Seoul need to bend its interest to the growing economic and strategic significance of China? Or conversely does China’s rise require that it re-emphasize the alliance with the US in order to balance - even if quietly - China’s rise?

A review of several issues suggests this framing of the problem simplifies Korea’s choices in self-limiting ways. Its challenge is not to choose between China and the United States but to focus clearly on its own interests, including in the multilateral system from which it has profited.

Several issues make the point, starting with strategic ones. How should Korea approach China and the United States with respect to North Korea? We can see immediately that Korea has interests that align and diverge from both. South Korea has to firmly remind Beijing that it has obligations with respect to its client state. China cannot simply ask for calm in the face of blatant provocations. But U.S. policy toward the North is stuck at the moment and President Park Geun-hye is correct - although not yet successful - in exploring principled openings to the North that could restate the benefits to the North of a more forthcoming stance.

The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system raises similar questions, as Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University, raised in a recent column in these pages. China has expressed its opposition. The United States would like to see the system deployed, in part to strengthen regional missile defense and the fraying Korea-Japan relationship. Of course, these considerations should play some role in South Korean thinking. But the paramount question is whether South Korea thinks that this expenditure would strengthen its deterrent and reduce risks in a cost-effective way. My own view is that Thaad provides a small increment of security at significant financial cost and may even increase risks. But even if you disagree, the debate should center on the cost-benefit calculation for Korea.

Yet another example is the recent controversy over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which the United States badly misplayed. The bank has the substantial strategic benefit of drawing China into multilateral commitments, the kind of leadership and assurances that we desperately need from Beijing at the moment. But Korea’s decision to join and how to participate going forward should be driven by its calculations of the regional benefits. And they seem potentially large. Korea benefits from growth in East Asia and such growth will benefit from infrastructure investment on the Eurasian mainland.

Economic examples also abound, and Korean policy has been particularly nimble in this regard. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was a benefit to both sides - indeed, with Korea reaping larger gains as the smaller economy. But it does not rule out benefits from the free trade agreement with China or an expansion of that agreement to Japan. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is controversial in the United States, and Americans do not have the detail on its provisions that they deserve. But Korean participation should not be based on strategic calculations but on the text of the agreement and the benefits it could bring to Korean industry.

Human rights provide a final - and difficult - example. Korea is a democracy and has interests in the advance of freedom abroad, including greater transparency and freedom in China as well. Standing up for your values against a large neighbor is difficult, but reflects certain integrity. South Korea should state clearly its interest in human rights in both China and North Korea, but not because of its alliance with the United States. Rather, this is a broader international issue in which Korea has its own interests.

Korean diplomacy is increasingly shaped by a variety of interests that reach well beyond its neighborhood, including its leadership in the provision of aid, humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations. Of course, Korea should think about its foreign policy in the context of its long-standing alliance with the United States and its emerging relationship with China. But neither of these relationships can or should define South Korean choices, which should begin with a clear calculation of its own interests.

Even in our personal lives, it is sometimes surprisingly hard to figure out what we really need. It is even more challenging in the making of foreign policy. But neighbors and allies appreciate a partner who is honest and straightforward about its interests.


*The author is a Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of University of California in San Diego.

by Stephan Haggard

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