Belt and Road initiative meshes with South Korea’s Northern Policy

By Ding Rongjun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/18 21:08:39

Since its inception in 2013, China's Belt and Road initiative (BRI) has become a buzzword in international politics. Spanning over 60 countries and 63 percent of the world's population that represent 37.3 percent of global GDP, the  BRI balances regional neighbors' need for new infrastructure with China's own domestic needs. In this light, the initiative is viewed as a pivotal component of China's neighborhood diplomacy featuring "amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness." However, despite President Xi Jinping's invitation for all countries "to board China's fast train of development," the grand plan has yet to harness the full support and participation of major powers such as the US, Japan and India, who have reservations about China's final intentions. Such reservations however are without merit.

First, the BRI facilitates the provision of global public goods rather than attempting to change the status-quo. In international politics, one way of achieving regional or even global peace, stability and cooperation among states is through the provision of global public goods by a major power. It is through the provision of public goods that international institutions were effectively established, which in turn provided the avenue and channel for achieving mutual interests and common development. Without these institutions, each state would have been worse off.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Silk Road Fund channel loans and technical services to improve and modernize infrastructure in backward regions that are in dire need. Not only will this accelerate regional integration and connectivity on the Eurasian continent, but also China's development-based policy can cultivate a habit of mutual cooperation and win-win situations in a part of the world that has showcased major trust deficits in the years following Western encroachments.

In this light, China's efforts to improve connectivity through the BRI can continue by including the voluntary cooperation of states that have not signed on to the initiative yet such as South Korea.

Since the period of president Park Chung-hee, Seoul has displayed keen interest in linking the Korean Peninsula with Europe. Significant progress was made during president Roh Tae-woo's administration via normalization with China and the Soviet bloc nations by adopting a "Northern Policy," most recently culminating in Park Geun-hye's "Eurasia Initiative." President Roh Moo-hyun was also keen on making South Korea a hub state of Asia by bridging the Eurasian continent and the Korean Peninsula.

Hence, judging from the practices of past administrations in Seoul, the incumbent President Moon Jae-in is also likely to prioritize linking the two Koreas, China, Russia, Central Asia and Europe through roads and other transportation networks. As a de facto sea-state contained by its northern neighbor, it is in South Korea's DNA to seek a way toward the continent.

From a geopolitical perspective, the Northeast Asian region is ripe for rivalry between all the major powers of the world. China and South Korea have the ability to dial down emerging regional tensions. One way to do that is by increasing the connectivity of Eurasia via the passageway of Busan - Pyongyang - Russia's Far East - Central Asia and Europe.

From China's perspective, such a plan has four major benefits. First, cooperation with Seoul can unleash the potential of China's three northeastern provinces which need external stimuli for growth. Second, the plan can push North Korea's reform by providing economic incentives and transportation and energy infrastructure, thereby creating a peaceful environment conducive for BRI's successful implementation. Third, it can link with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union which is one of Putin's key policies to develop its desolate Far East region, thereby alleviating Russia's concerns over BRI. Fourth, cooperation with Seoul can reduce the risk of exacerbating security tensions on the Korean Peninsula, thereby altering the regional structure from a hostile balance of power to one of peace and order, where cooperation and non-competition become the norm. From South Korea's standpoint, a trilateral framework with China and Russia toward North Korea's opening and reform can be realized.

Lastly, it is generally accepted in international politics that economic engagement and connectivity is conducive for peace. Creating momentum for such a spillover effect to take place on the Korean Peninsula is what China and South Korea can achieve via connecting the BRI and Northern Policy. In this light, China's BRI and the new South Korean administration have multiple modes of cooperation that can contribute to regional development and global stability.

The author is an assistant professor at Tongji University Department of Diplomacy. 


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