Standing up to Chinese bulliesChina remains relentless in its retaliation against South Korea for the latter’s decision to install a U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) on the peninsula. A ballet concert planned in Shanghai by the Korean National Ballet’s principal dancer, Kim Ji-young, was called off, and a construction project by Lotte World in the northeastern city of Shenyang was suspended, the latest casualties of Beijing’s all-around attack. Has the Chinese government always been such a bully?
China shares borders with 16 countries, more than Russia, so fighting with neighbors is a given. In 1962, it waged a border war against India, and currently, it is engaged in territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over islets in the South China Sea. But China has not been so belligerent against these two Southeast Asian nations. Vietnam is as reliant on China for trade as Korea. The share of exports to China was 23.6 percent for Korea and 20.3 percent for Vietnam in 2015. But China is not so intimidating toward Vietnam.
The Vietnamese have fought back against the Chinese before. In 1979, China attempted to invade Vietnam with a 200,000-strong army, but withdrew after suffering more than 20,000 casualties. In 2014, when China installed an oil drilling facility in disputed waters in the South China Sea, Vietnam sent a warship. On land, the Vietnamese held a nationwide protest against the Chinese, setting fire to a Chinese factory that led to 20 casualties including the deaths of two Chinese. With such public sentiment, no Vietnamese government can kowtow to the Chinese. Beijing is well aware that economic retaliation will not work on the Vietnamese.
But Koreans are hardly that defiant. In 2000, the Seoul government immediately pulled back from a tariff increase on Chinese garlic after it resulted in Beijing banning Korean mobile phone and polyethylene imports. Now, Koreans are wavering on the Thaad decision over concerns of Chinese retaliation.
Experts warn that the government in Beijing will attempt to tame Seoul whenever it is displeased. Korea could fall victim to Finlandization, named after the way Finland came under the economic influence of the Soviet Union despite not being politically aligned with it.
Korea would be doomed if it ends up like Finland. Not only would it lose political independence, but the economy could be ruined if the Chinese economy shakes. After the Soviet collapse in 1990, Finland’s gross domestic product shrank 10 percent and unemployment shot up 18 percent, a result of Finland’s high reliance on the Soviet economy.
To avoid following this ill-fated path, Korea must stand tough regardless of the short-term consequences. In 1880, a Chinese Qing Dynasty envoy to Japan is said to have tipped a British counterpart on the way to “tame” the Joseon (Korean) people. He said Joseon people were like children. “They become docile if you show your hidden muscles at the right time while feigning niceties.”
Beijing will continue to use its muscles as long as it can maintain its high-handedness over the Korean people. Korea should look to India, Indonesia and other markets to diversify its export portfolio. The Thaad fiasco should be a lesson for Korea Inc. on how dangerous it is to be over-reliant on a single market and too trusting of China.
But the immediate damage control might not be easy. The conflict stemmed from the will of Washington to protect its troops from a possible North Korean attack. It is absolutely reasonable for a country to bring in defense weapons to protect the soldiers of allied forces. But it is unfair for Korea to take all the blame. Washington must step up to clear the air over Thaad with Beijing. The South Korean government should demand American officials settle the affair straightly with their Chinese counterparts so that Korean civilian interests are no longer hurt by their power game.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 14, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.