A changing strategic landscape?
One of President Park Geun-hye’s diplomatic accomplishments - indeed, perhaps her most significant one - is a strong working relationship with Beijing. For the U.S. and other countries in the region, however, ties with China have been increasingly strained since 2010.
But China’s strategic landscape could be changing, and not for the better. As a result, could we finally be seeing some small signs of a shift in China’s approach? And if so, what role can Korea play?
Prior to 2010, China seemed intent on assuring its neighbors about the prospects of its “peaceful rise.” Around that time, however, the region confronted a series of actions that raised alarm bells. On the Korean peninsula, China showed a maddening even-handedness to the sinking of the Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Since that time, we have heard rumors of Chinese pique toward Pyongyang. But the country’s economic ties with North Korea have continued to deepen with little progress on the nuclear front.
In 2010, an incident at sea in Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands generated a furious Chinese response, including the retaliatory arrest of Japanese businessmen, sanctions and tolerance for anti-Japanese protests that threatened both property and Japanese citizens in the country.
Yet no part of the region has generated as much concern in the U.S. as China’s aggressive - yet at the same time ambiguous - claims with respect to the South China Sea. Invoking historical rights that have a weak legal foundation, China has claimed sovereignty over all land features in the area. Its exclusive economic zone overlaps claims made by a number of Southeast Asian states. Moreover, China has been aggressively reclaiming land on a number of atolls, building air strips and other facilities that appear to have military purposes.
From the perspective of China’s grand strategy, the effects of these actions have been almost exactly the opposite of what was intended. Despite talk of a U.S. pivot to Asia, we are seeing a pivot of Asia to the U.S. as capitals across the region seek to hedge their bets vis-a-vis China.
Despite President Park’s controversial visit to China in September - where she shared the dais not only with Chinese President Xi Jinping but also Russian President Vladimir Putin - her visit to Washington provided an opportunity for both countries to reaffirm the alliance. Recent Japanese legislation with respect to its right to pursue collective self-defense raised alarms in Korea. Nonetheless, it reflected a growing perception in Japan that China poses a challenge that needs to be addressed. Despite domestic opposition to the defense bills, Japanese public opinion with respect to China has witnessed a steady deterioration since 2010.
In the South China Sea, China continues to stall implementation of a code of conduct in the region. Exasperated by military actions in seas claimed by the Philippines, Manila finally took China to an international arbitral body to settle claims. Despite China’s contention that the court had no jurisdiction, it recently ruled that it in fact did, opening a whole new legal front on the issue. Earlier this month, the U.S. felt compelled to challenge Chinese claims by sending a destroyer on a freedom-of-navigation mission within the 12-mile territorial limits that China has sought to claim. Australia is contemplating the purchase of Japanese submarines and there have been suggestions that Japan could participate with the U.S. and other Southeast Asian countries in joint naval maneuvers in the South China Sea.
Even on the economic front, China is seeing U.S. inroads. China’s growth remains impressive - and is a boon to both the regional and world economies. But the Chinese economy has slowed, investment disputes are tarnishing the country’s reputation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership was not only successfully negotiated but is likely to be ratified by next summer and is attracting new adherents.
China and the region would benefit from a return to its “assurance” approach to its neighbors, and the Korean Peninsula would be a good place to start. At the Sunnylands summit between Presidents Xi and Barack Obama, the two singled out the Korean nuclear question as a point of common interest. It is possible that China has restrained North Korea from another self-destructive round of missile and nuclear tests, but brokering a serious return to denuclearization talks would send a stronger signal of its willingness to engage Korean interests.
For the U.S., a hopeful sign came during President Xi’s visit to Washington with respect to cybersecurity issues. South Korea has become an important target of cyberattacks and shares with the U.S. an interest in more effective Chinese response to commercial espionage. In Washington, Xi and Obama agreed to establish a new consultative mechanism on cybersecurity that could be extended to other parties in the region as well.
The resumption of trilateral summits among China, Japan and Korea was welcomed in the U.S., in part because of the willingness of both Seoul and Beijing to move beyond the history issues. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has work to do if this issue is going to be resolved by the end of the year. But a dysfunctional Japan-Korea relationship weakens the ability of the two allies to speak with one voice on issues of common concern; mending that relationship has wider strategic effects.
It would seem the South China Sea is far from Korea’s interest, and the Park administration has been cautious in speaking up on the issue or getting more directly involved. However, South Korea need do little more than restate general principles that are a staple of its foreign policy in any case, including not only freedom of navigation - vital to South Korea’s interests - but peaceful settlement of disputes, including territorial ones.
The U.S. has neither the willingness nor the capacity to “contain” China. A peaceful, prosperous and engaged China is in the interest of all countries in the region, and the U.S. can take no issue with the positive relationship Korea has built with the country. But moving China back toward a more reassuring posture toward the region requires efforts on the part of all countries and Korea, too, has an important role to play.
*The author is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
by Stephan Haggard