The Asan Institute recently held its inaugural forum in Beijing on Sino-Korean relations: “Korea and China: Next 20 Years.” The two-day forum drew participants from South Korea, China, Japan, and the United States. While the dominant theme of the forum was the nature of and prospects for a stronger relationship between China and Korea, the participants carefully considered this relationship from the perspective of multiple triangles, including North Korea, Japan, and the United States. The forum also put China-Korea relations into a wider regional context, examining security and economic cooperation and contestation among multiple regional powers. The program of the forum, as well as brief summaries and video footage of each session can be found on the Asan Institute’s website.1 This synopsis presents a thematic analysis to encourage further reflection and debate on the Sino-Korea relationship and its regional implications.
The forum opened with a moving short film, documenting the history of the relationship to the contemporary period. The images of the war, followed by clips of cultural exchanges, made it immediately apparent to viewers how far this relationship has come in recent years. The opening remarks and the keynote speeches by the representatives from both sides highlighted the recent successful summit between presidents Park and Xi. At the outset of the conference, a reference was made to the complementary nature of China and Korea’s dreams, signalling the opportunities for enhancing bilateral ties in many realms.
During the discussion panels, some participants referred to the post-summit period as a “honeymoon” in the Sino-Korean relationship. Scott Snyder called the Sino-Korean relationship “the most significant transformation in a bilateral relationship in the Asia-Pacific.” The success of the relationship, however, was primarily depicted in economic terms. The increase in bilateral trade has been remarkable in the past twenty years (it is approaching US$300 billion), and it is expected to further expand in the years to come. Some Chinese participants, however, pointed to the unequal nature of bilateral trade, with China suffering a severe trade deficit, and called on South Korea to strike down trade barriers for imports of China’s agricultural and textile products. On the whole, though, economic interdependence was noted as a positive factor bolstering bilateral ties.
The participants also praised the increasing bilateral cultural exchanges, while noting that more efforts to deepen mutual understanding and trust are needed. On both sides, rising nationalism, in part facilitated by the media, can work against the high-level efforts to bring the two nations closer together. Better mutual coverage by the media and more exchanges at the sub-state level were suggested as some potential measures to bridge bilateral gaps. On economic and cultural matters, the tone was largely upbeat, describing remarkable achievements to date and offering ideas for more progress in the coming years. These themes gave a positive cast to the forum as a whole.
The timing of the forum made it inevitable that troubling concerns were also brought to the fore. The more sensitive areas in the Sino-Korean relationship concern security relations, especially in light of heightened tensions with Japan, the unresolved North Korea issue, the rebalancing of power between China and the United States in the region, and the general uncertainty of the East Asia order. We consider these issues by assessing Sino-Korea relations in various triangular contexts.
The Korea-China-Japan Triangle
The shared tensions between China and Korea over Japan were a notable theme in the forum discussions. The issue of Japan’s apology over its war crimes incited a heated debate in the panel on the history of politics in East Asia. All participants concurred that the unresolved tensions are harmful for the three individual countries and for the regional order, and yet they found it challenging to point to a way forward. Beyond the sensitivities in high-level politics, the participants pointed to domestic public opinion being the driving factor behind the aggravated tensions. Japan’s apology has been internalized by the public in China and Korea. Nationalist media reports further feed into and exacerbate public sentiments. In order to please public opinion, therefore, the countries’ leaders adopt a sharp anti-Japan stance. And while there is a common perception of Chinese authorities manipulating public opinion, China’s increasingly diverse and vocal netizens also have potential to sway official policies.
From Japan’s perspective, there is a fear of giving into a stronger China and the negative domestic repercussions of that. Prime Minister Abe, however, has made some conciliatory remarks towards China and South Korea, out of pragmatic considerations, as he aims to become the first postwar Japanese prime minister to amend the Constitution. Japan’s legalistic approach towards historical reconciliation, however, is unsatisfying to its neighbors, who seek a more sincere apology. As for the next steps, Japan’s expectations of a deteriorating relationship with South Korea, marring the 50th anniversary of the basic bilateral treaty (in 2015) might influence Japan’s leaders to bypass further conciliation towards Korea. China-Japan relations, driven more by strategic objectives than by emotions, have a better chance for improvement in the near future, according to a Japanese participant, speaking before the ADIZ uproar. The recent intensification of the Sino-Japan dispute raises serious doubts about this optimistic prognosis on China-Japan reconciliation.
Sharply different views were aired about this triangle. On one side, led by Chinese participants, were arguments that the mutual tension with Japan brings Korea and China closer together. Some Chinese commentators argued that South Korea should invest in closer relations with China to put more pressure on Japan. For instance, it could fulfil the demand for investment in China’s car manufacturing sector—a gap created by China-Japan tensions. On another side, several Korean participants noted that South Korea is unlikely to entirely side with China in its pressure against Japan. Moreover, bilateral closeness based on shared tensions with Japan might be offset by rising regional insecurity, which hurts both countries. Given that security spending in Asia is projected to outstrip that of Europe by 2035, the sense of insecurity is on the rise, and tensions with Japan are only making it more apparent. A third perspective is that Japan is deeply concerned about the security tensions with both Korea and China. If South Korea draws closer to China in the security realm, Japan would likely make adjustments, such as a closer US alliance that would leave in doubt the ROK-US alliance. This triangle is proving more divisive than at any point since the Cold War.
Forum participants all pointed to the need to resolve and put aside the historical disagreements. The suggestion for isolating this issue while focusing on strengthening other forms of cooperation and highlighting positive aspects of triangular ties was put forward by most presenters. Jennifer Lind went as far as to argue that apologies are generally not productive in international politics, and pressuring Japan to deliver a more satisfying apology will not lead to much progress in achieving reconciliation, but could instead lead to “apology weariness” in Japan and distance Japan’s moderates from collaborating with China and South Korea. Focusing on fact-based historical education in all three countries was put forward as another suggestion. The fact that the three approach the issue of Japan’s occupation differently in their history textbooks has an immense influence in shaping mutual perceptions and tensions. More cooperation on creating common historical textbooks, with support from the three governments, could have a positive impact in the long-term. Increasing people-to-people exchanges was also seen as mitigating the ongoing conflicts. Yet, these oft-advocated educational measures ring hollow, given that they have been tried before and are absolutely inconsistent with choices being made in each of these countries.
Efforts were made to find a silver lining in the recent dire condition of this triangle. That usually meant going back to economics to find a basis for more optimistic possibilities. Japanese participants pointed to the fact that mutual antagonisms are often put aside when dealing with trade negotiations, and that Japan welcomes economic interdependence with China and South Korea. Chinese and Korean participants also noted that triangular interactions in the economic realm were more productive and positive than those in the security and political domains. Comments were made about mutual learning with regard to economic development. South Korea, for instance, was cited as a model for China and Japan in dealing with domestic opposition to trade and investment.
The South Korea-China-North Korea Triangle
North Korea’s persistent nuclear ambitions were a prominent theme at the conference. The discussion started with a reference to North Korea’s declaration at the Third Plenum (March 2013) of its intention to continue developing nuclear weapons along with pursuing economic development. It was acknowledged that South Korea and China share the US concern with North Korea’s ongoing nuclearization, but there were evident tensions between their approaches. Whereas South Korea, along with the United States, wants to apply more forceful measures, China favors Six-Party Talks without preconditions, and it also shows concern with North Korea’s stability and development even if that means North Korea may acquire more means to accelerate its nuclear and missile threats.
Chinese participants expressed some impatience with North Korea’s lack of compliance, but at the same time stressed China’s interest in achieving North Korea’s denuclearisation without unsettling its security and stability. A reference to nuclear weapons as being “weapons of the weak” was made during the discussion by Chinese participants, arguing that North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons out of its sense of insecurity and desperation rather than strength. A focus on developing the national economy and helping North Korea find a more sustainable development strategy was put forward by Chinese participants as complementary to denuclearization. A suggestion was even made for South Korea to collaborate with China in developing North Korea’s economy.
South Korean and American participants pointed to the conflicting nature of the two objectives. North Korea’s ongoing trade with China works against international pressures, and allows it to build up nuclear capabilities with substantial impunity. A contrast was made to Iran, where international efforts were more unified, forceful, and subsequently more successful, especially as demonstrated by the recent interim deal. The implications of this deal for North Korea will be addressed at an upcoming conference in Washington, with the synopsis of the conference appearing in the journal in early January.
With regard to the possibility of imposing economic sanctions, Chinese participants cautiously noted that more time is needed to consider whether and how they could be applied. China’s somewhat ambiguous approach to North Korea was also demonstrated by the fact that it appears to indirectly facilitate some of North Korea’s illegal activities, including exports of drugs and fake currency, as well as its acts of cyberterrorism against Korean nationals. China provides a market, as well as a transit point for these activities. This complicates the triangular dynamics and makes successful negotiations more challenging. Such differences of opinion over North Korea made this triangle a challenging theme for the forum.
Some American participants also pointed to China using North Korea as a trump card in its relations with the United States. It would like China to put more pressure on Pyongyang, but also to share intelligence about it, as it has the best insight into the domestic situation in North Korea. Both, Chinese and American participants acknowledged that there has not been significant progress made in this realm.
If there was a note of optimism with regard to North Korea, it centered on China’s weariness over North Korea’s nuclear activities and recent ban on exports of over 900 items to North Korea as well as the South Korean and US encouragement for finding a path toward restarting the Six-Party Talks.
ROK participants, including those directly involved in the past negotiations, however, cautioned against going into the talks without having concrete results in mind. In contrast, China’s. eagerness to restart the talks without conditions left doubt on how much further China will be willing to go in putting pressure on North Korea and in supporting the efforts of South Korea and the United States.
The South Korea-China-US Triangle
The discussion of the Sino-US relationship pointed to the potential for South Korea to play an important bridging role. The participants acknowledged the recent progress following the Obama-Xi summit, but stressed the persistent tensions between the two in the Asia-Pacific. While promises were made to “reset” the Sino-US relationship at the Sunnylands summit, it is not yet clear how this will occur and, specifically, affect bilateral relations in Asia and the triangle with South Korea. The United States prioritizes its bilateral alliances, while China is seeking to bypass these alliances. According to Chinese participants, China wants a more inclusive order whereas the US maintains selective relations driven by shared values. In addition, whereas Xi Jinping’s interpretation of the new model for bilateral cooperation includes the four elements of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation,” the unresolved North Korean crisis and the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Island dispute, among other issues, demonstrate the difficulty of its practical implementation. On the whole, Sino-US relations in Asia were described as “competitive coexistence,” which means that tensions between the two are unlikely to subside in the near future.
As a middle power, Korea cannot play a rebalancing role in the region, but various speakers argued that it can effectively mitigate the power relations between China and the United States. Park Geun-hye’s policy of aligning with the United States and harmonizing with China is an indicator of this approach. A reference was made to Israel as an example of a middle power playing a bridging role between the United States and China. South Korea could potentially have similar or even a more powerful influence, given its regional positioning, it was suggested. The participants noted that Park’s promotion of middle power diplomacy requires more careful examination, and also pointed to the importance for South Korea to be more active in shaping the regional order. For Chinese, that means it should be more assertive in challenging US policies. For South Koreans such thinking may reflect idealism about what China will accept or how much space will be available to manoeuvre.
A perspective was put forward that the US-South Korea alliance can coexist with a strong China-ROK relationship. Some of the non-Chinese participants suggested that South Korea and the United States hold similar views about China’s rise and that South Korea’s engagement with China, which is riskier than that of the United States, can serve as a test for US relations with China. As discussed in detail in our synopsis of the Asan Washington Forum, better Sino-US relations can be conducive to a stronger relationship between the ROK and China. The Sunnylands summit paved the way to Park’s visit to Beijing, and Park’s ability to build stronger ties with China is influenced by Washington’s support and confidence in its success. Washington’s foreign policy focus on the Middle East despite its “rebalance to Asia” also opens the way to more active ROK engagement with China in shaping the region, some participants suggested.
Korea and China in the Regional Order
The discussions on the regional order concurred on the unlikelihood of a unified regional architecture in the near future. The divides between the East Asian and Trans-Pacific community approaches, as well as between the cooperative and high-standard approaches were highlighted by some participants. The East Asian approach of community building contrasts to the Trans-Pacific approach of US regional embeddedness, and the cooperative approach of functional cooperation conflicts with the result-driven, high-standard approach. These divides are linked to regional tensions between China and the United States. Some Chinese participants argued against the exclusivity of the current regional order and called it unbalanced and unsustainable. They expressed dissatisfaction with being excluded from all US-led security arrangements, as well as regional groupings, such as TPP, and pointed to the danger of over-reliance on the United States in shaping regional order. The Chinese participants suggested increasing cooperation in the non-traditional security sphere and urged the creation of a more inclusive East Asian regional order, especially with regard to China and Russia. While China welcomes the United States as a legitimate stakeholder in the region, it is not willing to be subjected to US regional domination and wants to be a key player in shaping regional affairs.
The Chinese view was challenged by participants from the United States and South Korea, who questioned the notion of an unsustainable regional order by arguing that it has lasted successfully for the past 40 years and that regional cooperation is not the only way to resolve issues, referring to bilateral and international frameworks as alternatives to the regional order. One American argued, rather than viewing the current order as incompatible, “experts need to seek out the shades of grey where there is an opportunity to engage.”
In contrast to the political realm, the discussion of the East Asian economic order pointed to more signs of regional cooperation. The efforts toward forming several regional economic agreements, including that between China, Japan, and Korea (CJK FTA) and the TPP were taken by some participants as a positive indicator of the development of a multilateral regional trade system. The discussion about economic cooperation was less driven by emotions and domestic sensitivities than that about security cooperation, and much more guided by pragmatic considerations. A Chinese presenter on the subject, for instance, referred to the TPP as a normal practice, not aimed at sabotaging China, and pointed to China’s learning from TPP-style FTAs by enacting similar arrangements between Chinese cities. A Japanese perspective stressed the importance of progress being made in the economic realm, including Japan’s concessions in agricultural protection in negotiations toward the TPP and CJK.
At the same time, there is ongoing competition between different regional economic orders—one driven by the United States, and the other one by China. Moreover, economic order cannot be entirely separated from the political one, as participants noted the political barriers to achieving trade agreements. China-Korea-Japan disputes, for instance, stand in the way of achieving the CJK FTA, and the congressional barriers in the United States put in question the TPP negotiations. While some participants expressed optimism about economic cooperation being conducive to overcoming political tensions, others argued that economic relations are part of the strategic competition in the region. One perspective was that of economic integration, especially that among China, Korea and Japan, as inevitably driving regional cooperation in the future. A dissenting view was that of political tensions obstructing economic relations in the region.
The Asan Beijing Forum made for a dynamic discussion on the Sino-Korean relationship. Other than the diverse perspectives from China and South Korea, the opinions of participants from Japan and the United States contributed to a nuanced and lively conversation. The forum highlighted notable progress in bilateral ties, and captured the generally hopeful mood of the participants. The triangular tensions discussed in this synopsis pose both challenges and opportunities for the bilateral relationship. The ongoing conflict with Japan, the difficult coexistence between China and the United States in the region, and the uncertain regional order, on the one hand complicate collaboration between China and South Korea, but on the other, open up new areas for engagement. The discussion on historical memory showed that the two nations face similar difficulties in managing public opinion on this issue and in isolating it from other, more positive aspects of the relationship with Japan. The analysis of Sino-US relations pointed to the potentially important bridge-making role that South Korea could play in dealing with the interests of the two powers. And the notion of the uncertain regional order means that more areas for bilateral cooperation could emerge as both nations try to take a more active part in it. The general uncertainty caused by the tensions discussed above, however, also could yield more distrust between the two countries, especially if more progress is not made in addressing the North Korean crisis.
1. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, “Asan Beijing Forum 2013,” http://www.asaninst.org/eng/02_events/scholarship_detail.php?seq=101491.