A test of American leadership
First, we must face the facts. China is no longer a cheap place for Korean companies to manufacture goods for export to the West. It is emerging as a major investor in Korea and a significant source of tourists and their yuan. China is growing into a major market in its own right for Korean goods and services. The businessmen who accompanied Xi Jinping on this visit were granted a level of access once reserved for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I expect the impressive new Chinese Embassy in Seoul will be flanked by the offices of many Chinese businesses in the years to come.
What exactly is China’s challenge to the United States? It has nothing to do with aircraft carriers or missiles. China is suggesting to the world through this elaborate visit that Korea can be its most important partner in everything from business and education to diplomacy and finance.
This is the same Republic of Korea many Americans think of as the kid brother we saved in the Korean War - a country we only know through images of impoverished peasants in the “M*A*S*H” reruns we watched as children.
Some South Korean and American old-timers lament that the United States is slowly being pushed out of Northeast Asia by this Chinese charm wave. They regret how Korean youth fail to be grateful for the American commitment to Korea dating back to the efforts of missionaries in the 19th century to introduce public education.
But history is something that we make with our own hands and is limited in its potential only by our imagination.
It is not only possible, but imperative, for the United States to carve out a new space in Northeast Asia. But that will require a fundamental rethinking of the U.S.-Korea Alliance.
First and foremost, the United States must upgrade the U.S.-Korea partnership on every front.
President Xi, in contrast to President Obama, brought his wife and a broad range of top government officials and business leaders to Seoul. They were ready to deal, and they already have made good on their promises. They regard Korea as not just another mid-level power, but as the core of a new integrated system of technology development, manufacturing, distribution and sales. The Chinese perceive correctly that Korea is as important to the international community today as France, Germany or Great Britain.
By contrast, Korea has trouble getting any attention inside the Washington beltway. It seems as if it takes a Pyongyang missile launch to wake up U.S. policy makers to peninsula issues. When Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime member and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee visited Seoul recently, it was his first time in the country. That Korea was such a low priority for a central figure in American foreign policy speaks volumes.
Next, the United States needs to confront the threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in a comprehensive manner. The true danger posed by Pyongyang is not a nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan, rather it is that the presence of an expanding nuclear force in North Korea will set off a larger arms race in Northeast Asia that would inevitably lead to the development of nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan, and eventually Southeast Asia.
The United States can reassert its leadership in East Asia by proposing a comprehensive arms control framework for the region that covers both nuclear and conventional weapons, as well as new protocols for emerging technologies like drones and 3-D printing that have not been addressed. We must remember that it was the engagement of the United States with the Soviet Union in the SALT arms talks and other disarmament discussions with the Warsaw Pact that were essential to laying the foundation for the European Union. But the United States needs to take the first step and reaffirm its commitment to setting a specific date for eliminating its own nuclear weapons.
Finally, it is simply not true that China categorically wants the United States to leave Northeast Asia. Although there are hardliners in Beijing as there are in Washington, China, Japan and Korea all recognize that the United States has served, and could continue to serve, the critical role of arbiter in the region.
However, that role can only be played by the United States if it takes the critical step of engaging China. It is time to stop, once and for all, this foolish “China threat” mongering and recognize that the future of our world depends as much on the United States moving beyond a Cold War paradigm for diplomacy and security as it does on China accepting the norms of the international community and becoming a full-fledged stakeholder.
President Xi’s visit to Seoul, and the downgrading of its relationship with North Korea, must be seen as a bid by China to assume a position as a responsible global leader in the international community. The time has come for the United States to reciprocate: To welcome Korea and, by extension, China into the inner circle concerning all long-term economic and strategic planning and to simultaneously put forth a compelling new vision for America’s role in a Pacific century that will be broadly embraced.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.
BY Emanuel Pastreich