The Complex China-South Korea Relationship
Image Credit: REUTERS/Wang Zhao/ Pool

The Complex China-South Korea Relationship

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China’s new president*, Xi Jinping, is scheduled to visit South Korea in the next few weeks. Given the tame, bland statism of both country’s media, few of the interesting debates and important disagreements will be aired. Instead, the national prestige obsession of both will dominate the coverage. There will be a lot of self-congratulation and vanity: how important each country is now, how they are resetting world politics, how the West, and the United States especially, needs to pay more attention to them, and so on. And finally, as both countries’ bureaucracies are reflexively anti-Japanese, there will be a lot of the standard conspiratorial “Japan is remilitarizing and plotting to take over Asia again” boilerplate. All-in-all, the local media coverage will be weak and recycled, so instead, here are the large, unspoken issues lurking in the background:

South Korea is increasingly caught between its economic dependence on Chinese export markets and military dependence on the United States.

This dilemma has been intensifying in South Korean foreign policy for more than a decade now. As China has risen to regional and global prominence, South Korean exporters have increasingly linked themselves to its 8 trillion dollar economy. South Korea, like many Asian states, is deeply committed to the mercantilist goal of a running trade surpluses. As such, the search for export markets plays an extraordinarily important role in South Korean politics. (It need not; a stronger won would help heavily indebted Korean consumers a lot. But corporate behemoths [the chaebol] play an outsized role in Korean politics and have convinced the Korean voter that their export profits and Korea’s national interest are identical. They are not.) Because of its high growth, China would clearly play a role in South Korean economic nationalism; that China is right next door and offers good complementarity as a lower middle income state only tightens the fit. In two decades China has risen to be the number one export market for South Korea.

Simultaneously, South Korea continues to significantly underspend on defense, given the challenges of both engaging in conflict with North Korea as well as occupying and reconstructing it. Despite decades of prodding from the U.S., Korean defense spending is still only at 2.5-3 percent of its GDP. It is woefully unprepared to fight North Korea alone, much less take on an insurgency during any subsequent occupation. South Korea desperately needs the U.S. for its external security, which in turn creates obvious tension with China.

There is no obvious answer to this dilemma that would not involve significant internal pain. The chaebol have little interest in rocking the export boat with China, while there is little will for higher defense spending, and indeed strong opposition from the South Korean left.

South Korea increasingly needs China to get any measure of good behavior, much less unification, out of North Korea.

In the early post-Cold War years, there was much fluidity among North Korea’s neighbors. China had not yet risen dramatically. It was one player among many, while the U.S., Japan, and South Korea had not yet moved toward a unified position on the North. Russia’s near total collapse in the region was not yet clear.

Today, the lines have hardened. Russia plays little role on North Korea. Putin may enjoy flirting with it to poke the U.S. in the eye, but he is a mild spoiler at best out here. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea have broadly hewed to a moderately hawkish line since the collapse of the Sunshine Policy. As such, North Korea, which used to happily bounce back and forth among possible patrons, playing them off against each other, is now stuck. Its only exit from the (more or less) unified democratic front is China. North Korea must placate China in order to evade the punishing UN sanctions regime it faces. China is now North Korea’s primary pipeline to the rest of the world. Smuggled goods come through inbound flights (it is very easy to see when you fly into Pyongyang from Beijing) and over the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. Chinese banks help launder North Korean illegal monies from its drug-running and insurance fraud. The cushy lifestyle of the Pyongyang elite – HDTVs, luxury cars, modern appliances, top-shelf liquor, and so on – would not be possible without massive Chinese flouting of the sanctions.

This has thrust China into newfound prominence on North Korea. It hosted the (failed) Six Party Talks, and there is a growing consensus among North Korea watchers that if China were to cease its economic and diplomatic support, North Korea would suffer a major systemic crisis. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye must now dote on Beijing to bring about any kind of movement on North Korea, and in the longer term, any hope for unification now depends on Beijing’s willingness to one day cut off North Korea. So long as Beijing pays Pyongyang’s bills, provides it diplomatic cover at the UN – where it recently blocked a reference of North Korea to the International Criminal Court –and provides it with an unstated defense guarantee against the United States, North Korea will continue to stumble on. The road to Pyongyang now runs through Beijing.

South Korea may not worry about China’s rise as the United States and Japan do, but it will not compromise on nearby maritime territorial issues with China.

It is now widely recognized outside of South Korea that China manipulates South Korean anti-Japanese feeling in order to drive a wedge between the Americans’ main allies in the region. Indeed, were the U.S. not in the region and allied to South Korea and Japan, it is unclear whether South Korea would align with Japan or China. Japan would be the natural political choice; like South Korea, it is an open, liberal democratic state with an exemplary record since the war. But “Japanophobia” runs very deep in South Korea. Koreans fear and dislike the Japanese far more than they do the Chinese. Post-colonial resentment of Japan is shared by both and is often projected back through history. That the Chinese Ming dynasty helped Korea against a Japanese invasion in the 1590s is well-known by every Korean schoolchild. Korea has little interest in aligning with the U.S. and Japan against China.

But this does not mean that Seoul will agree to China’s increasingly capacious territorial claims in the East China Sea. China’s expansion of its air defense identification zone last year was greeted with hostility in Seoul as well as Tokyo. While the Japanese and South Koreans did not cooperate, both rejected the expansion, and South Korea counter-expanded its own ADIZ in response.

South Korea has taken a similarly hard line with Chinese “fishermen” who regularly wander into South Korean waters in the Yellow Sea. China does not recognize the inter-Korean sea border – called the Northern Line Limit – and it has rented out some of these waters from North Korea. South Korea has rejected this and regularly detains Chinese vessels that enter.

These three areas of tension will belie the smiles and self-congratulatory rhetoric coming later this month. South Korea is in the weaker position. It is smaller and desperately needs China’s help with North Korea. But it also has the looming threat of the U.S. pivot in the background. China cannot play too tough, or it risks pushing South Korea into the emerging U.S.-Japanese anti-China camp. Good relations with South Korea is China’s best chance of fracturing the emerging ring of hostile states on its periphery, particularly in the South China Sea. Regional hostility to China means Xi will not be able to bully Park as China has with the Philippines and Vietnam recently.

*Corrected from “premier.”

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