A South Korean Perspective
"Reassessing the Park-Xi Summit"
In recent months, pundits in Washington and Tokyo talk or insinuate quite a bit about the so-called “Seoul-in-the-China-orbit” thesis. From this author’s perspective, however, much of it has been blown out of proportion. Granted that, during the last year or so, it was common to hear that South Korea-China relations have never been better, such concerns on the part of the United States and Japan are, to a certain extent, understandable, though mostly incorrect. The origin of such concerns lay in President Park Geun-hye’s successful three-day state visit to China in June 2013—officially dubbed a “trip for heart-to-heart building of trust” (xinxin zhi lü)—during which ties were further cemented by a pledge to consolidate the “strategic cooperative partnership” established in 2008.
After a year, in the midst of high hopes and friendly sentiments, President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to South Korea during July 3-4, 2014. The overall atmosphere was cordial, protocol was at its maximum, and the schedule was tightly followed. Prior to his visit, expectations soared in Seoul, as it was unprecedented that a Chinese president would visit South Korea before he went to North Korea. More importantly, Xi’s itinerary had only one country—South Korea—on it, as if he had specific goals and motives in mind for the visit.
As is widely understood, summits rarely fail. Although the overall outcome of the Park-Xi summit did not exactly meet prior expectations, a couple of new developments merit our close attention. The Seoul-Beijing agreement on starting official negotiations in 2015 regarding the delineation of maritime boundaries, including exclusive economic zones (EEZ), is a big step forward. For one, successful win-win negotiations on this sensitive issue would eliminate for good a key obstacle to stable South Korea-China relations. For another, given that maritime territorial disputes have long constituted a principal area of contention and instability in East Asia, a mutually satisfying solution could set a useful model for crisis prevention and confidence building with far-ranging ramifications for the region as a whole.
The consensus reached on setting up a new track 1.5 meeting is also noteworthy. Unlike the previous two administrations, the Park government has, thus far, lacked a key channel for government-civilian dialogue with China. Having a track 1.5 bilateral dialogue has dual benefits of allowing taboo topics (e.g., the Korean end-game) to be dealt with in semi-official settings and of carrying at least some dose of formal authority that is deemed important to a government-dictated (guan benwei) political system, as exists in China.
In the domain of bilateral cooperation, three key areas were identified: 1) reduction of air pollution; 2) collective rescues in case of accidents and natural calamities; and 3) increased cooperation in public health—without delineating specific modes of operation. In the domain of bilateral economic cooperation, presenting a big picture for the next five to ten years was apparently absent, although the target of reaching an agreement on the bilateral FTA before the end of 2014 was set. Additional noteworthy agreements were to establish an offshore yuan center in Seoul (for the first time, outside the Greater China area) and to allow South Korea an 80 billion yuan quota for domestic investors to buy Chinese securities in China under the Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor (RQ-FII) program. With regard to regional and global cooperation, which are deemed key areas for the strategic cooperative partnership between the two countries, the three domains of climate change, cyber security, and intra-regional nuclear plant safety were identified. While they are undoubtedly important, specific directions for cooperation are yet to be meted out.
Other than the issues discussed above, the “same bed, different dreams” phenomenon was more than visible. China’s position—at least the open side of it—on North Korea and its nuclear weapons programs was little different from the previous (2013) one, stopping short of criticizing Pyongyang and calling for the “denuclearization of North Korea.” Although Xi apparently expressed quite a bit of his displeasure with Pyongyang in private conversations with Park, how much of that actually reflects concrete changes in policy remains uncertain.1 Not surprisingly, Xi repeatedly called for yet another round of the Six-Party Talks, which many consider long dead, if not on serious life support. Xi demanded that the September 19, 2005 Joint Agreement be followed, but, given developments (particularly in Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities) since 2005, it is unclear how that can be the basis of a “meaningful” new beginning.
If China was lukewarm on the North Korean conundrum, it was South Korea that was equally so on the Japan question. Contrary to Beijing’s expectations, South Korea did not go along with its scheme of making Japan an open culprit. Allegedly, like North Korea, Japan was a topic of conversation between the two presidents. Yet, the word “Japan” never made it into the joint statement (not even the appendix) out of the summit. Conducting joint research on “forced sex slaves” was approved, but forming a united front against Japan did not materialize. Xi’s “outburst” on Japan during his down-to-earth speech at Seoul National University on July 4th was perhaps another way of expressing his own assessment of (and probably some frustrations with) the summit so far as the Japan problem was concerned. Seoul and Beijing could have done more to satisfy each other’s respective goals by conceding a little bit more, but, apparently, classic geopolitical considerations gained the upper hand.
Overall, the Xi visit was not as impressive or substantive as the Park visit a year before. For one, the Park-Xi summit in June 2013 exhausted the main items of agreement on the principal agenda for the bilateral relationship. For another, the media’s overblown expectations made the summit in July 2014 less successful than it really was. A South Korean official offered in private the following comments on the summit: “[T]he media in Seoul went way too much ahead on setting the atmosphere and agendas for the summit…Granted that media people always look for something new instead of important continuities, they were generally excessive and often dead wrong.” He specifically pointed out that some media organizations even performed as a mouthpiece for China by demanding that the bilateral relationship be “upgraded” to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”2 Their expectations were effectively rebutted by Park’s astute decision to keep the official designation intact, but to add an elusive adjective, “mature,” to the strategic cooperative partnership.
Turning to the question posed in the beginning—is South Korea entering the Chinese orbit—, my answer is “probably not.” Two reasons largely account for such an assessment. For one, several fundamental sources of South Korea’s strategic concern with China’s “assertive rise” remain largely intact, if in hibernation. Due largely to the curse of geographical proximity and historical memories, South Korea has an inherent fear of an assertive China nearby. Furthermore, given China’s specific positions on the North Korean (WMD) problem, Korean reunification, the alliance with the United States, historical disputes, maritime boundaries, and universal norms/values, it would not be prudent to rush into the Chinese orbit.3
For another, the grace period (i.e., one or two years after key leadership changes in both countries) is nearing its end. Personal charm rarely outweighs national interests. Important issues of contention keep popping up as if to rebut the popular discourse that “Seoul does not have to choose between Washington and Beijing.”4 A couple of such thorny issues easily come to mind. The question of missile defense, i.e., the deployment of THAAD (terminal high altitude area defense) and X-band radars in South Korea is something that Washington really wants but Beijing wishes to avoid by all means. The now famous debate on the US-led Trans-Pacific (Strategic and Economic) Partnership (TPP) and the China-centered Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is yet another such issue. More recently, how to respond to the Chinese tenet of “Asian security by the Asian people” announced at the 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Chinese offer to invite Seoul into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB: a China-initiated counterpart to the Asian Development Bank), pose additional challenges for Seoul. Entering into the Chinese orbit at this point in time, it seems, is a luxury for South Korea.
China is now an indispensable partner for South Korea, economically, diplomatically, culturally, and, increasingly, even militarily. Yet, Seoul is structurally tied to Washington with the alliance treaty, which it certainly will find helpful and comforting when Beijing proves to be too demanding and assertive at some point. Undoubtedly, the Seoul-Beijing relationship is bound to have crucial strategic ramifications for the region as well as for the key powers located there. The United States tends to discount the crucial importance that the economic dimension has for South Korea-China bilateralism, although South Korea-US trade combined with South Korea-Japan trade has for several years been smaller than South Korea-China trade. In contrast, China often underestimates the ultimate “insurance” value that Seoul attaches to its military alliance with Washington in an era of growing strategic uncertainties.
Being a middle power in the sea of great/global powers, South Korea should always seek to be prudent and ready to adjust its sails as the winds of twenty-first century international politics are both tumultuous and unpredictable. Sticking only with the alliance option is going to prove as unwise as deciding to rush into the Chinese orbit. A middle power in the sea of great global powers needs flexibility. Principles are often necessary, but they are never as important as national interests. Trust building cannot be the absolute panacea for all the problems that Seoul is currently facing; a healthy dose of strategic suspicion must be added. As an old saying goes: “the pessimist complains about the wind, the optimist expects it to change, and the realist adjusts the sails.”
*Author’s e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Whether the China Customs Administration’s statistics showing that there were no oil shipments from China to North Korea during January-May 2014 constitute key evidence remains uncertain.
2. The possibility of “upgrading” the bilateral relationship to “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” (quanmian zhanlue hezuo huoban guanxi) was allegedly explored first and informally by the Chinese side.
3. Chung Jae Ho, “Korean Views of Korea-China Relations: Evolving Perceptions and Upcoming Challenges,” Asian Perspective 36, no. 2 (April-June 2012): 219-236.
4. Politicians may say this, but rarely do scholars do this, given awareness of the intricate dilemmas that Seoul increasingly faces.