Korea inclined to act on its ownSince last year, a phrase has been constantly used to describe Korea’s foreign policy. Japan is especially eager to spread the theory about Korea’s “inclination” towards China. It was first mentioned when Korea was deciding whether to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) earlier this year. And the climax was President Park Geun-hye’s attendance at China’s Victory Day celebration in September.
Korea’s inclination towards China advocated by Japan is widely spread in the United States. In the news conference during President Park’s U.S. visit, President Barack Obama said, “The only thing that we`re going to continue to insist on is that we want China to abide by international norms and rules. Where they fail to do so, we expect the Republic of Korea to speak out on that, just as we do”
His remark represents America’s position. The Blue House considers clarifying the inclination towards China as one of the biggest outcomes of Park’s U.S. visit.
Is Korea really leaning towards China? There are many counter-arguments. Korea’s entry to the AIIB is strictly based on the economic rhetoric of pursuing national interests, and Park’s attendance at the Victory Day celebration was intended to urge China towards a constructive role in the nuclear situation and reunification of the Korean Peninsula.
The inclination towards China became widely discussed because Korea and China have become so close since Park came into power. There are a few reasons for the closeness, and the first is restoration of policy.
Korea-U.S. relations became distant during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, so the Lee Myung-bak administration worked on reinforcing the Korea-U.S. alliance. Relatively, the relationship with China grew apart. It was only natural for the Park administration to work on improving relations with China. And Korean and Chinese leaders have a special consideration for each other, helping the relationship grow closer.
Moreover, China’s importance in the Korean economy is absolutely growing. Unlike Japan, whose domestic demand is dominant, the Korean economy is driven by exports, and one-fourth of Korea’s exports go to China. If Chinese tourists stop visiting Korea, the Korean tourism industry may go bankrupt.
A university in Busan, which is geographically close to Japan, used to have 70 out of 100 students learn Japanese in the past, but now, 80 percent of the students are learning Chinese.
Korea and China are also influenced by Confucian teachings, and have shared values and closer sentiments. It is one of the reasons for Korean pop culture’s popularity in China. Lately, Korea-China relations have matured to suit the title of strategic cooperative partnership. From Korea’s point of view, Korea puts “high importance on China,” rather than leaning towards China.
Then why does Japan mention Korea’s inclination towards China? The background is the fierce fight over East Asian hegemony between China and Japan. Last month, Dongseo University held a Korea-China-Japan symposium in Busan to celebrate the launch of the Institute of Chinese Studies.
A Japanese scholar in attendance listed three elements of discord between China and Japan: China’s sense of crisis as a result of reinforced U.S.-Japan relations, disagreement over history and territorial disputes. However, a Chinese scholar pointed out more fundamental issues. While the three issues the Japanese scholar mentioned are shown on the surface, the underlying core of the discord is Japan’s unwillingness to accept China’s rise.
In 2010, the second-largest economy in the world changed from Japan to China. Japan lost the status that it maintained for 42 years since 1968. Moreover, Japan’s pride as a leader in Asia was hurt. Problems rose as Japan was unwilling to acknowledge the fall in status.
Japan cannot shake off its confrontational attitude against China over leadership in the region. Japan’s attitude coincides with the interests of the United States, which is suspicious of China’s emergence. And the result is reinforced U.S.-Japan relations.
While Japan wants Korea to join them, Korea is acting on its own, joining the AIIB and attending the Victory Day ceremony, and Japan is not pleased by these moves.
Korea is not competing with China over the title of Asia’s leader. Rather, Korea wants to utilize China’s emergence as an opportunity. So the China threat is not as serious to Korea as to the United States and Japan.
Korea finds Japan’s rightist swing more worrisome than China’s emergence.
Korea’s inclination towards China is a situation set up by Japan. And it put Korea in an awkward position between the United States and China. If Korea does not side with the United States, we may be accused of leaning towards China. The solution is to get out of the frame.
Let’s not use the phrase “inclination towards China.” We can say that Korea values the importance of China, just as we value the United States and Japan.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 4, Page 32
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.
by You Sang-chul