The China policy gap
At the press conference between Presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye at the White House last month, the two leaders presented to the public the fruits of a sturdy alliance and the warmth of a personal friendship. However, during the question and answer session with reporters, there was one remark by Obama that caught everyone’s ears. In response to a question about China, the American president said, “We want South Korea to have a strong relationship with China …. the only thing that we’re going to continue to insist on is that we want China to abide by international norms and rules. And where they fail to do so, we expect the Republic of Korea to speak out on that, just as we do.”
This remark was a clear reference to the hand-wringing in Washington in the month prior to the summit at the sight of South Korean Park standing with Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Beijing at the Victory Day celebrations in September. She was the only head of state of a major democratic power in Asia, allied with the United States, who was present at a military parade that showcased that latest Chinese weaponry designed to counter U.S. power in the Pacific.
American pundits complained about a Korea that was slowly but surely gravitating into the Chinese orbit and away from the U.S. and Japan. Others in defense of South Korea responded that Park is not distancing from Washington but drawing the Chinese closer to her and away from the DPRK.
Both of these views are short-sighted. They represent the type of one-dimensional, zero-sum thinking that typified the Cold War years. What is happening now is Diplomacy 2.0 on the Korean peninsula - a nuanced and three-dimensional foreign policy strategy designed to alter Chinese strategic equities, engage U.S. interests, and ultimately build Northeast Asian cooperation in a region of the world famous for its lack of security institutions.
Diplomacy 1.0 means choosing the least controversial path, and the safe play would have been for Park to avoid the Beijing celebrations, politely excusing herself for domestic-political reasons. But credible messages about taking the positive atmospherics in ROK-China relations to the next level meant sending costly signals. In this case, Park was willing to endure any criticism in Washington for the bad photo opportunity because she has a larger three-dimensional game in mind, of which isolating the North Koreans from the Chinese is only a small part.
Seoul signed a free-trade agreement with Beijing in June 2015, opened an NSC-to-NSC dialogue in November 2013, and put its president on display to Chinese university audiences speaking in their mother tongue in June 2013 because it is seeking to alter Beijing’s assessment of its equities on the peninsula. By any metric, China’s future on the Korean peninsula is with an economically vibrant, technologically savvy, and globally relevant South Korea rather than with the aid-devouring black hole that is the North. Many Chinese officials and scholars believe North Korea’s cult of personality regime belongs in a museum rather than north of the 38th parallel. But such a clear-headed view is clouded by two generations of “sealed-in-blood” thinking embedded in Chinese bureaucracy and strategic culture that Park is trying to unwind.
In this regard, few noticed the Blue House’s casual reference after the Park-Xi summit that referred to “[t]he two sides also had in-depth discussions on the issue of unification. The Korean side stressed that with the Korean Peninsula in its 70th year of division, peaceful unification was a pressing aim, the realization of which would also contribute to promoting peace and prosperity in the region. The Chinese side said that it supported the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula by the Korean people.” Yet, this was the first time China has ever mentioned unification in a statement with South Korea, signaling that Seoul-Beijing bilateral discussions on unification strategies have breached new ground. However, gaining Chinese support for South Korean positions is not all that the ROK is after. Park is trying to build trilateral dialogue among the United States, Korea, and China about the future of the peninsula.
The North Korean regime under Kim Jong-un grows more reclusive. The continued purging of high-level officials over four years into Kim’s power transition, including now the possible purge of Choe Hyong-rae, signals that all is not well in Pyongyang. The nightmare scenario for the region is a collapsing North Korea with loose nukes that engenders military competition between the U.S. and China.
New ideas will always meet resistance because they are unfamiliar. In this regard, Park’s 2.0 diplomacy runs against the current of uncontroversial and one-dimensional diplomatic-thinking in Asia. But it faces two challenges. First, the honeymoon in the Park-Xi relationship has not been tested by North Korea’s misbehavior as it was during the Cheonan sinking in 2010 when Beijing’s silence at North Korea’s murder of 46 South Korean sailors badly soured relations. Seoul will harbor heightened expectations of Chinese allegiance in the event of a North Korean missile or nuclear test.
Second, South Korea must find its voice with regard to Chinese activities in the South China Sea. It cannot remain silent at any country’s revisionist agenda in Asia, even as it pursues China’s goodwill in its diplomacy on the peninsula. A high-level but quiet dialogue between the United States and South Korea about China is necessary in order to avoid any further misunderstandings with regard to Seoul’s new diplomatic initiatives with China.
*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at CSIS in Washington DC.
by Victor Cha