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Subject: ROK-PRC Relations and the Future of Northeast Asian Security

Date: 2014-08-11 12:31
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                               ROK-PRC Relations and the Future of Northeast Asian Security
                                                            Dr. Jojin V. John

The Northeast Asian international order is currently going through a critical phase, where the logic of traditional security architecture has been strongly challenged by the new political realities within the region. United States (US)-South Korea (ROK)-Japan trilateral security alliance has been the defining feature of Northeast Asian security architecture for the last six decades. The developments in Northeast Asia with the rise of China (PRC), growing PRC-ROK relation, strained ROK-Japan, PRC-Japan relations and PRC-North Korea (DPRK) raises fundamental question to the sustainability of trilateral security architecture. At the moment what prevails both in intellectual debates and policy direction is confusion and ambiguity. It is in this context the current development in ROK-PRC relations could provide some clue in to the dynamics of Northeast Asian strategic order and future direction.

The new development in the ROK–PRC relations are to be viewed both a symptom and cause to the transformation of the Northeast Asian Cold War security order. Symptom because improved relationship between ROK-PRC manifests the changed regional realities, and cause because it induces further changes in regional strategic calculations. The strategic and political dimension of ROK-PRC partnership has been never been so argued and evident until the recent summit meet of ROK President Park Geun-hye and PRC President Xi Jinping in Seoul. President Xi’s two day short visit to Seoul during the first week of July was more symbolic in essence signalling the demands of repositioning alliances and adversaries to meet the new challenges and opportunities of the changing security and economic realities in Northeast Asia.

South Korea-China Partnership: New Direction

ROK had no formal diplomatic relations with PRC until the relationship was normalised in 1992. During the past two decades, the two countries have advanced their political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural relations with unprecedented speed and scale. This development has been driven by expanding bilateral economic cooperation and people to people exchange. China has become the largest trade partner, overseas market, import source, destination for overseas investment, source for foreign students, and destination for overseas travel for the ROK citizens. Trade between the two countries has increased, from US$ 6.37 billion in 1992 to US$ 270 billion in 2014. Korea’s trade with China is more than its trade with Japan and United States combined. China is South Korea’s largest investment destination with total of US$ 36.15 billion over the 10 year period of 2004-2013.  A significant flow of people also demonstrates the growing importance of the PRC-ROK relationship, with over 8 million travelers visiting each other’s country in 2013 and around 60,000 Chinese studying in ROK and 62,855 South Korean students in PRC.  

The rise of PRC and ROK’s increasing economic interdependence with PRC has presented Seoul with difficult strategic dilemma between the US and PRC. Traditionally, ROK has been a close US ally and has been a major factor in South Korea's security and economic success. The past two ROK administrations have adopted a strategy of strategic ambiguity; towards dually manage its security, which is grounded in the ROK-US alliance, and its economic well-being, which is dependent on the ROK-PRC cooperative partnership. However balancing a harmonious relationship between the two countries have so far not proved to be an easy task. Under President Roh Moo-hyun, Seoul has recoganised PRC's growing power, accommodated PRC and maintained some diplomatic distance from the US. For most of Roh's tenure, South Korea enjoyed good bilateral interactions with PRC, but it suffered severely from the resulting complications in its security cooperation with the US. In contrast, under President Lee Myung-bak, Seoul strengthened ROK-US alliance as its diplomatic priority and advanced ROK’s relationship with the United States into a more comprehensive, multidimensional "strategic alliance." President Lee’s pro-American stand was not so well received in Beijing; hence the relationship was less than cordial.

Until recently ROK-PRC relations were mainly focused on the economic cooperation. Under the leadership of President Xi and President Park, two countries have taken bold steps in expanding their cooperation in diplomatic, political and strategic affairs. Within one year of assuming leadership, President Park and President Xi has completed an exchange of state visit and five summit meets. During President Xi two days visit Seoul, promoting economic ties have been central focus. Both countries have agreed to sign a bilateral free trade agreement by the end of this year. Political factors have also played an important role, which was demonstrated in the cooperation of the two nations over the issue of DPRK’s nuclear proliferation through coordinated measures and shared sentiments on Japanese historical revisionism and remilitarisation.  

It is widely observed that Xi visit to Seoul was a bold step by Beijing in its efforts to systematically weaken ROK-US alliance. During the visit Xi articulated the increasing significance of Beijing in ROK’s future economic prosperity. Through its economic diplomacy by offering to permit South Korea to settle its bilateral trade accounts in renminbi, Beijing has expressed opportunity for ROK to be closer to PRC.  PRC’s invitation to ROK to participate in a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (alongside other countries in Asia and the Arab world, but excluding Japan) furthers Xi’s efforts to create an alternative financial system, with the AIIB mimicking the Asia Development Bank’s work. Following President Xi’s state visit to Seoul, ROK and PRC signed a memorandum of understanding that will see a direct telephone line established between their two defence ministers. Seoul currently only has a direct high-level military hotline with Washington.

President Xi’s decision to visit Seoul ahead of Pyongyang has broken Chinese leader’s long held tradition of visiting North Korea before visiting South Korea. Showing a cold shoulder to Pyongyang by not visiting and not inviting DPRK’s young leader Kim Jong-un to Beijing, reflects Beijing’s frustration over DPRK’s recent bellicose activities and its unwillingness to reform the paralysed economy. The Park-Xi summit has launched the first ever ROK-PRC initiative on DPRK. Until recently Beijing was keeping a distance from Seoul on the issue of unification and has supported Pyongyang in the international level. However Beijing has been very critical of DPRK following its 3rd nuclear test in 2013 and supported UN led sanction against DPRK. In a joint statement issue during the visit President Park and President Xi announced a reaffirmation of their “firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”  ROK has urged PRC’s to use its economic leverage on DPRK to give up its nuclear weapon programme. Xi has also called for the resumption of six party talk, the multilateral forum for peaceful resolution of DPRK’s nuclear weapon programme, which has been suspended since 2008. However there remains a problem and divergence of perspective, as PRC called for “unconditional” reopening of the talks, while ROK and the US maintains a position that demands Pyongyang first take some action to show its sincerity.  

The ant-Japanese sentiments in both countries have become a significant factor in the shaping of better ROK-PRC relations, particularly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine. For example, PRC responded positively to President Park’s request by building a memorial hall of An Jung-geun, a Korean independence activist who assassinated Itō Hirobumi, Japanese Prime Minister at the city of Harbin in 1909. During the visit in lecture delivered at Seoul National University, President Xi has reminded ROK of the shared Japanese aggression of the past and united struggle, and signalled the need to be united against future militarisation of Japan. President Xi said; “Our two countries had big suffering when (Japan) launched barbarous aggression on China and Korea and annexed and occupied the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century,"… "Both countries' nationals ... walked shoulder to shoulder to battle grounds together 400 years ago”.   The Japan card would be the most effective strategy on the part of PRC in developing a pro-Chinese sentiment in ROK, as castigating Japan is perhaps the only idea that ROK’s bitterly divided ruling and opposition parties can agree on. Both countries are also involved in territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and Dokdo/Takeshima islands this aspect will add more fuel to anti-Japanese sentiment in ROK-PRC relations.

A recent survey conducted by the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul following President Xi’s visit suggest that, PRC, however, still has a long way to go in securing its place in ROK citizen’s hearts and minds. The survey, showed South Koreans had a more favourable view of China than they did last year however the US remains the most popular foreign country and the most important ally. Likewise, 59.6 percent of respondents want ROK to strengthen cooperation with the U.S when compared with 24.9 percent who thought cooperation should be boosted with China. A clear majority believes that PRC’s economic rise (69.9%) and military rise (63.6%) are threat to ROK.

Implications for Northeast Asian Security Order

The increasing divergence of economic and security interest of Northeast Asia countries along with unsettled national identity questions challenge the sustainability of existing security order and complicates formation of new multilateral institutions in the region. The ROK’s foreign policy dilemma is illustrative of this complexity, on the one hand Seoul is obsessed with strengthening its security alliance relations with US but has also have huge stakes in cooperating PRC economically, for reasons of national identity Seoul’s diplomatic and political engagement with Tokyo has have its limitations and it is necessary for Seoul to both deter and engage DPRK to maintain peace and stability in Korean peninsula. Today other countries in Northeast Asia share similar kind of dilemma of varying degree, hence the new reality demands for a change in Cold War regional security and institutional order, which was built around the premises of a converged security and economic interest, but region exhibits a strong tendency of inertia against any institutional change. The Northeast Asian situation presents a case of strategic dead lock, where any change to the Cold War security order is perceived as instability.

The current development in ROK-PRC relations have seen as a game changer and viewed very sceptically by different actors in the region. The responses of different countries in the region illustrate the significance of ROK-PRC rapprochement and its implication for Northeast Asian security architecture. Immediately after Xi-Park summit Japan has announced plans to drop some sanctions against DPRK, imposed when the regime abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been even speculations about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visiting North Korea. The sudden move of Japan in dealing with Pyongyang alone has disturbed Washington and has expressed displeasure over Japan’s decision to gradually lifting its unilateral sanctions on North Korea depending of the progress of the negotiations on Japanese abductees, as it would undermine the effectiveness of; US led sanctions over nuclear issue and the US-ROK-Japan alliance.  It is hard to imagine how could Japan and North Korea can bury their long history of animosity and work together but not impossible. The current Japanese move could be read as Abe’s diplomatic ploy to gain ground in Northeast Asian region in a context where ROK and PRC trying their best to isolate Tokyo.

The relation between PRC and DPRK is at its historic low since the assumption of Xi Jinping as the Chinese President in 2013. In showing its displeasure of President Xi’s visit to Seoul, DPRK has fired two ballistic missiles. In an unusual way DPRK slammed PRC for its closeness with ROK, "Some spineless countries are blindly following the stinking bottom of the U.S., also struggling to embrace (South Korean President) Park Geun-hye, who came to a pathetic state of being,".  Russia is taking advantage of the recently strained DPRK-PRC relations in the aftermath of the sudden execution of Jang Song-thaek, previously the second powerful man in Pyongyang acting as the political and business intermediary between the two countries. Timing is perfect of Russia-DPRK rapprochement. Moscow's overtures to North Korea reflect both a defensive distancing from the EU and Washington because of their sanctions over Ukraine and a broader, long-term effort by Russia to strengthen its hand in Asia by building political alliances, expanding energy exports and developing Russian regions in Siberia and the Far East. Russia’s gesture to write off nearly $10 billion in debt held over from the Soviet era and promises of Russian investments in infrastructure development came at a time when the North Koreans are looking for an alternative partner for aid and economic cooperation.  With the closing of China-ROK relations, "North Korea is worried it can be isolated in northeast Asia," said Kim Hankwon, director of the Center for Regional Studies at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. North Korea has begun talks with Japan and struck economic deals with Russia which could indicate that Kim Jong Un is trying to "reduce dependency on China," he added.

The developments between China and ROK are watched carefully with some worry in Washington. The assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel R. Russel observed the Xi-Park summit as “an extraordinary milestone”. Evans J. R. Revere, a former deputy secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific observes that Washington remains confident that despite problems between Japan and ROK, its relationship with Seoul was on solid footing, and  PRC’s efforts to “drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States is not going anywhere.”

The current regional conditions present a tough challenge to ROK foreign policy. On the one hand a great opportunity to enhance ROK’s influence by playing a pivotal role in the regional strategic dynamics, the pivot role is to assume a balancing role between US and PRC and promoting regional institutions to manage security affairs. On the other hand a heightened regional rivalry between PRC and US or PRC and Japan can jeopardise ROK’s security interest, to become a victim of great power rivalry. Seoul assumes a strategic ambiguity, by improving relationship with US and PRC simultaneously yet keeping a safe distance on sensitive matters. For example; ROK has decided not to join US led missile defence system in East Asia, as a reason not to antagonise PRC.  Similarly Seoul has been cautious towards PRC’s invitation to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), financial institution proposed by China to counter the Japanese and US led Asian Development Bank (ADB). Seoul’s silence on the Chinese proposal to jointly celebrate the 70th anniversary of Japanese surrender during the Second World War, which is aimed to further isolate Japanese in the region.

Despite South Korea’s tough stance toward Japan and development in South Korea-China relations, Seoul doesn’t seem to undermine US-South Korea security alliance and do not see the new context as a question of choosing between Washington and Beijing rather aims to balance in between. It is this balancing role, which Seoul trying to assume, complicates the traditional security architecture of Northeast Asia and the outcome of the new strategic calculations remain highly uncertain.  

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