If the 21st century ultimately fulfills its predicted destiny as the “Pacific Century,” future historians will mark 2013 as the watershed year in which the gravity of world power began to tilt toward the Asia-Pacific, and perhaps 2017 as the decisive year of the shift. In 2013, two major economic strategies to strengthen regional cohesion and global connectivity were announced: China’s massive “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) and South Korea’s “Eurasia Initiative” (EAI). While the former has clearly overshadowed the latter, the relatively tiny South Korea’s aspirations may ultimately hold the key to the success or failure of China’s grand vision because of the pivotal role North Korea plays in the destiny of both countries.
The genesis of both OBOR and the EAI is geography, from which the region’s strategic impetuses flow. As the Western world’s attention has increasingly tilted eastward, manifested in part by the U.S. “Pivot to Asia,” China, in contrast, has turned westward, as well as to its north and south. Not to be outdone, other regional powers have also readjusted their strategic compasses: Russia’s attention is increasingly turning south and east through its “Eastern Dream”; India is turning north and east through its “Act East” strategy; and Japan is turning to its west and south with its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
These geographic readjustments of strategic priorities are in great part a reaction to the U.S.-centric regional architecture based on the “hub-and-spoke” alliance system that has dominated the region since World War II. OBOR is China’s attempt to build an alternative regional architecture to support its own geopolitical objectives, first and foremost challenging U.S. leadership in the region and ultimately globally. OBOR also serves China’s nearer-term priority of reinforcing its own domestic stability by promoting security in extra-territorial regional neighbors through its economic and political influence.
Through massive investments in infrastructure development projects in geographically strategic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, and countries throughout Central Asia, China offers tempting alternatives to U.S. and Western influence with their more stringent standards and requirements.
Meanwhile, South Korea, whose very existence and security remains firmly entrenched in the U.S. alliance system, is under historically familiar pressure from regional powers vying for influence on the Korean peninsula. President Park Geun-hye’s launch of the EAI was an effort to exert South Korea’s growing strength and to geographically connect Western Europe with the easternmost pillar of Asia, the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
EAI unambiguously emphasized its political goals to fundamentally alter the geopolitical and security landscape of Northeast Asia. EAI explicitly acknowledges that the single impediment to creating a continuous geographical link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the European and Asian landmasses is the ongoing division of the Korean Peninsula. This vision is in stark contrast to OBOR, whose connections with the West notably stop at China’s eastern borders, glaringly ignoring the Korean Peninsula.
In this regard China’s vision may be more realistic, for it fully accounts for North Korea’s adamant resistance against any regional cooperation, much less loosening of its borders. Indeed, South Korea’s EAI may have been doomed from its inception because its very premise was based on corralling national and regional power to alter North Korean calculations. Unfortunately, North Korean actions in 2016, including its fourth and fifth nuclear tests as well as numerous missile launches, seems to have eliminated any remaining hope in South Korea that North Korea’s leadership is inclined toward a peaceful, much less cooperative future.
Nevertheless, China’s purposefully limited view westward — as well as north and south — with the explicit exclusion of the Korean Peninsula, which is economically and strategically crucial for true regional integration, is striking. It is perhaps further confirmation that for China, maintenance of the status quo — division of the Korean Peninsula — even with North Korea’s ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons programs, serves Chinese strategic goals: ensuring extra-territorial stability, particularly in its bordering countries.
It is becoming evident that South Korea’s own vision for the region, supported by its growing confidence as a solid middle power, is increasingly at odds with China’s. South Korea’s EAI, despite purporting to share similar goals with OBOR of reviving the ancient Silk Road to promote economic benefits for all involved, is far more likely to be a divergent path than a shared road.
More than the potential loss of long-term regional benefits, however, is the divergence between the two visions for extra-regional integration, which signals a deeper and troubling disparity in fundamental views about regional security. China’s refusal to acknowledge the obstructionist role that North Korea plays, hampering not only regional integration but stability on the Peninsula and beyond, is recognized and challenged by South Korea. Despite the political turmoil surrounding current President Park Geun-hye and her impeachment, and uncertainty about the next leader of the country, it is unlikely that the public will tolerate a return to the permissive engagement of previous Sunshine policies toward the North.
In addition, the negative Chinese reaction to Seoul’s decision to deploy the U.S.-led THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system, while unsurprising, was startling in its vehemence and has only served to increase South Korean suspicions about Chinese ambitions in the region. Indeed, China’s willingness to insert itself into the domestic debate on South Korea’s sovereign right to defend itself is indicative of the extent to which China’s preoccupation with stability in its extra-territorial regions is crucial to its own perception and needs regarding its national security.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s ability to assert its own independent actions despite regional and global pressures highlights the opportunities for exploitation created by the inability of regional powers to cooperate when national security interests diverge. Thus, the respective grand projects promulgated by China and South Korea to revive the ancient Silk Roads in order to promote regional integration may paradoxically unleash greater divisions in the Asia-Pacific, and fail to deliver the regional stability both nations are striving to achieve.
Finally, uncertainty surrounding the future direction of U.S. policies in Asia under the new Trump administration contributes another element of ambiguity about the regional architecture and whether the United States will remain as the anchor of stability for the region. As such, 2017 may mark the beginning of a 21st century shift in regional and global power, and augurs an unsettling if not certainly eventful future.
Balbina Hwang is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. This piece is adapted from a longer essay published in the Korea Economic Institute of America’s Academic Paper Series. The full-length essay can be viewed here.