Is a China-South Korea Alliance Possible?

Though unlikely in the short run, a Sino-South Korean alliance is a real possibility down the line.

Chinese President Xi Jinping just finished a visit to South Korea last week and the two sides reached a number of agreements, including expressing concern about Japan’s recent decision to allow for collective self-defense, which is a potential threat to China and South Korea. In particular, Chinese President Xi Jinping directly expressed support for the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula, presumably unification with South Korea playing the leading role. This closer relationship between China and South Korea has raised a number of interesting questions, with one of them being whether there could be a China-South Korea alliance in the future?

One major reason why China is now pursuing a warmer relationship with South Korea is China’s disappointment and anger at North Korea. A number of indicators suggest that China is quietly and slowly shifting its policy toward North Korea. Why China is changing its North Korea policy? The fundamental reason is actually quite simple– North Korea is now hurting China’s core national interests. In recent years, there has been a hot debate in China over whether Beijing should abandon North Korea. Several Chinese scholars (here and here) have already argued that China should abandon North Korea for moral and strategic reasons. They include: 1) North Korea’s value as China’s buffer zone is declining as China’s military modernization develops; 2) the China-South Korea relationship is increasingly important and it can replace the China-North Korea alliance relationship; and 3) North Korea has become a troublemaker for China and East Asia stability, thus a negative asset for China.

In the meantime, several Chinese scholars (here and here) have advocated for a China-South Korea alliance. According to Professor Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University, China and South Korea share three mutual security interests: namely, the Japan threat, North Korea’s nuclear threat, and maintaining peace in East Asia. Yan further explains that a China-South Korea alliance does not need to replace South Korea’s alliance with the U.S., thus reducing opposition from the U.S. side. According to Yan, Korea historically maintained alliances with two countries at the same time; so technically a China-South Korea alliance should not be a problem for South Korea-U.S. alliance. In addition, China is already South Korea’s biggest trading partner and South Korea’s future economic development heavily depends on China’s huge market. Most importantly, China now seems to embrace the idea that South Korea can play a leading role in future reunification with North Korea. It is thus natural for South Korea to develop a strong security relationship with China.

What about South Koreans’ attitudes toward closer security cooperation with China? One reason why a China-South Korea alliance might not occur anytime soon is that an overwhelming majority of South Koreans still support the South Korea-U.S. alliance relationship, though there are also feelings of resentment and distrust, as a recent report by RAND points out. In a recent public opinion poll conducted by South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 93 percent of South Koreans believe that it is necessary to maintain the South Korea-U.S. alliance. However, the support drops to 66 percent after reunification is achieved, suggesting a possible shifting alliance relationship to China. Moreover, when asked whether South Korea should increase security cooperation with China when U.S. and Japan increase security cooperation, 79 percent of South Koreans answered in the affirmative. Interestingly, in the U.S. there is some who doubt the value of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. In particular, these critics argue the U.S. could be dragged into an unnecessary war with North Korea, should a military conflict between North Korea and South Korea happen. Today South Korea is militarily strong enough to defend herself, thus further reducing the need for a security alliance relationship between South Korea and the United States.

While for a number of reasons China is not going to abandon North Korea anytime soon, and South Korea will continue to rely on the U.S. for security protection, things might change in 20 years. In particular, if China could successfully develop into a superpower in 20 years, then a China-South Korea alliance could happen, just as Professor Yan argued. For historical, cultural, economic, and security reasons, a China-South Korea alliance could very much help maintain peace and stability in East Asia.