Three Anti Sentiments Driving China’s Partnership with South Korea
South Korea’s joining of the AIIB on April 11 and signing of the China-ROK FTA on June 1 signified China and South Korea’s growing interdependence under Presidents Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, whose two summits since 2013 were an early affirmation of the upgraded China-ROK partnership. Yet in the first half of 2015, this heightened optimism gave way to recurring tensions over South Korea’s military alliance with the United States, reinforcing what many identify as Seoul’s biggest strategic dilemma of how to balance ties with the two major powers. Underlying such tensions, however, are China’s own dilemmas on the Korean peninsula, as reflected in current debates on the evolving Sino-South Korean relationship. Three anti sentiments are shaping China’s orientation toward South Korea, namely anti-US alliance, anti-North Korea, and anti-Japan sentiments.
The US-ROK alliance remains the biggest source of tension in Sino-South Korean relations, traditionally viewed through the lens of US-China great power politics. After a sustained period of engagement, frictions over the potential deployment of US advanced missile system THAAD on the peninsula emerged as a major test for Presidents Xi and Park earlier this year. US-ROK defense meetings in April prompted warnings that China would build up its own military capabilities to counter the program, which some believe does not primarily target DPRK security threats. For others, the deployment of THAAD on Korean soil would undo not just the warming of Chinese public attitudes toward South Korean counterparts but also the very foundation of the China-ROK relationship.
Chinese opposition to US alliances, however, has only served to intensify US and South Korean calls for greater Chinese cooperation against DPRK nuclear and missile threats, while raising new criticism within South Korea over Beijing’s interference in Seoul’s foreign policy decisions. Despite China and South Korea’s upgraded economic partnership, differences over South Korea’s alliance with the United States continue to demonstrate the difficulties of developing common security interests in Northeast Asia.
On the other hand, North Korea’s continued troublemaking has shifted China’s Korea policy in favor of closer alignment with the South under Xi Jinping, whose first summit with Park Geun-hye broke his predecessors’ generations-old tradition of visiting Pyongyang first. Since Pyongyang’s 2013 nuclear test, debate has centered on China’s move from pursuing traditional to “normal” ties with the North, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested at China’s March parliamentary session. While Beijing has welcomed South Korea into the AIIB, it reportedly rebuffed indications of interest from North Korea, where Pyongyang’s failure to commit to market reforms has deterred Chinese investment. Beijing’s restraint in condemning Pyongyang has also led Chinese commentators to instead vent their frustrations through official media outlets. Such frustrations surfaced this January after the fatal attacks on Chinese nationals by a North Korean army deserter, which raised Chinese public demands for a more pragmatic approach to inter-state relations with North Korea. Similarly, Kim Jong-un’s prolonged public absence last fall fueled much speculation over a potential military coup in North Korea among Chinese netizens, who pointed to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions as the key source of its internal political problems after decades of international isolation.
But a longstanding consensus among China’s Korea experts is the role of the US-led alliance network as the primary driver of Pyongyang’s belligerence. US military exercises with South Korea and Japan earlier this year drove Chinese warnings over a fourth nuclear test amid Pyongyang’s claims of US “hostile policy” to justify its military ambitions. From these perspectives, resolution of the DPRK nuclear issue depends on not international institutional constraints or greater political will on the part of Beijing, but US policy toward Pyongyang.
Finally, common reservations over Tokyo’s policy orientation under the Abe leadership appear to have drawn Seoul and Beijing together in reconciling history. Despite their own deep-rooted differences in this arena, some of the earliest substantive achievements of the 2013 Xi-Park summit have been in new areas of history cooperation, including South Korea’s return of the remains of Chinese soldiers killed in the Korean War, the initiation of joint research on comfort women, and establishment of a memorial for Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun in Harbin last year, which Beijing hailed as a triumph against Japanese imperial aggressors.
The resumption of trilateral foreign ministerial talks with Japan last March, on the hand, reassured others that the three sides can still lay aside their political differences in favor of common interests. Despite the deadlock in high-level talks, three-way cooperation in other functional areas has expanded, while such regional mechanisms as APEC and ASEAN have provided important platforms for reaffirming their joint interests on the sidelines. For those in support of China-centered economic multilateralism in Asia, Beijing’s engagement of Japan and South Korea satisfies the Xi leadership’s current diplomatic priority of expanding China’s regional commercial partnerships under the name of “win-win cooperation”.
Reconciling Chinese Priorities on the Korean Peninsula
The recent postponement of the US-ROK summit has also put on hold assessments on the direction of Washington and Seoul’s joint regional policies. While Presidents Obama and Park have long sought closer cooperation with China on regional security, Beijing’s response will depend on how it reconciles its own priorities on the Korean Peninsula. Although the consolidation of the US-ROK alliance will continue to draw Chinese suspicion, Beijing’s commitment to promoting regional security as well as its new multilateral economic initiatives in Asia will determine the success of not just China’s Korea policy but also Xi Jinping’s broader regional diplomacy.
See-Won Byun is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at GW. She is a recipient of a Sigur Center summer research grant and is currently investigating the foreign economic strategies of China’s border provinces.