US alliance no deterrent to mature Seoul-Beijing ties

By Scott Snyder Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-19 23:43:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Asan Beijing Forum held over the weekend provided an opportunity for in-depth, high-level discussion on challenges and opportunities for China-South Korean relations, which have progressed beyond anyone's expectations over two decades on the back of economic opportunity.

The trade relationship has ballooned from around $6 billion at the time of normalization in 1992 to over $250 billion in 2012, which is larger than South Korea's trade volume with the US and Japan combined.

Future progress in the relationship will have to expand beyond its economics-driven focus for its full potential to be realized. However, enhanced Sino-South Korean political and security cooperation will require the two countries to squarely address two fundamental issues on which consensus will be hard to find: North Korea and the future of the US-South Korean security alliance.

One initial test is whether China and South Korea can see eye-to-eye on the necessity of North Korea's recommitment to abandonment of its nuclear weapons as a prerequisite to resumption of Six-Party Talks.

Longer-term, China supports institutionalization of the Six-Party Talks while South Korean President Park Geun-hye is pushing a new vision and process for institutionalizing functional Northeast Asian cooperation that does not require North Korean denuclearization as a prerequisite.

The fundamental geopolitical issue dividing the two countries on North Korea involves contradictions over the preferred end state on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea's policy for over two decades sought to achieve peaceful unification of the peninsula, presumably as a market democracy under Seoul's leadership. But China cannot unconditionally embrace Korean reunification in the absence of assurances that a unified Korean government will not threaten Chinese interests.

China's expanding geoeconomic influence would appear to give Beijing an advantage, but its fundamental concern as it looks at the peninsula remains geopolitical: Beijing has trouble imagining a unified Korean Peninsula without the dissolution of the historically North Korea-focused US-ROK alliance.

However, this sort of zero-sum approach that regards alliances as "relics of cold war thinking" unnecessarily imposes its own costs that unnecessarily limit the growth of the Sino-South Korean political relationship.

In my view, there are several reasons why the US-South Korean alliance need not be an obstacle to a stronger Sino-South Korean political relationship:

To start, US and South Korean strategic approaches to China's rise are parallel and converging. Both are concerned with managing and/or avoiding Sino-US strategic competition through engagement, while also hedging against potential negative effects from China's rise.

By characterizing the raison d'etre of the alliance as solely threat-driven, Chinese analysts have missed the fact that over the past decade, shared values-driven alliance cooperation has deepened and expanded beyond the peninsula to address international stability concerns and to meet demands for provision of public goods to the international community.

South Korean efforts to more effectively engage China will not be a matter of concern to the US, because South Korea has substantially more to lose if such efforts fail.

Park's efforts to address the "Asian Paradox" of high economic cooperation against a backdrop of low political trust through the establishment of a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative is a vision that is shared in various forms by both the US and China.

If it is rolled out correctly, both countries should be able to provide support for it, especially since this vision ultimately converges with the vision for institutionalized cooperation embodied in the Six-Party Joint Statement, which China supports.

And finally, if there were no alliance, South Korea's geography and relative size compared to China would likely force it to pursue other, more extreme forms of hedging.

The Sino-South Korean economic relationship is mature and robust, but it will require much heavy lifting, and a greater willingness by China to take South Korea seriously even despite its alliance with the US, to realize its full political potential.

The author is senior fellow for Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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