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The China-South Korea axis is perhaps the most overlooked variable in the strategic environment of Northeast Asia. For nearly five decades their relationship was characterized by war, lack of dialogue and non-recognition; then, over a period of some three years, this situation gave away to fully normalized and amiable relations in 1992. Rapprochement between Seoul and Beijing in 1992 opened one of the first frontiers of the post-Cold War thaw in the region, and future security will hinge at least partly on this core relationship. In this context, Cha analyzes the evolution of Sino-South Korean reconciliation, and argues that the South Korea’s engagement policy from the late 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural arenas played a major part in eliciting unprecedented cooperation from Beijing, however, its initiatives alone were not a sufficient condition to prompt this cooperation.
A prior and necessary condition was a change in the strategic context surrounding China and the Korean Peninsula that raised both the benefits of cooperation and the costs of non-cooperation; the end of Cold War . In the context of security environment in Northeast Asia, South Korea’s success in engaging China has implications for future security on the Korean Peninsula. On balance, the axis is a stabilizing factor but not without its share of future challenges. With this in mind, the key questions of the article include: (1) How does one explain the growth of cooperation between China and South Korea? (2) To what extent has Sino-ROK rapprochement been the result of successful strategies on the part of South Korea to ‘engage’ China? (3) What are the implications on North Korea?
For a quarter-century after the Korean War, Sino-South Korean relations sat at the intersection of the global East-West conflict and the Sino-Soviet split, making any hint of cooperation impossible.1 However, since the middle 1980s, Sino-South Korean relationship has moved from being sworn enemies and opposed combatants in the Korean War, to being potential economic partners (but still strategic adversaries), and fully normalized diplomatic relations in 1992. Three key drivers propelled the change in the relationship: (1) the transformation of strategic environment concomitant to the end of Cold War, which established the baseline for post-war interaction.
In this context, Sino-Soviet reconciliation was a significant factor in Chinese calculations to normalize with Seoul. In particular, the end of Sino-Soviet rivalry reduced in Chinese minds the strategic consequences of ‘losing’ North Korea to Moscow, and made opening to South Korea more feasible. Furthermore, in South Korea’s view, China had evolved from being a revisionist power to being a status quo one, in the degree to which Beijing emphasized ‘unification’ or ‘peace maintenance’ as the security priority for the Peninsula. ‘Unification’ was associated with China’s revolutionary power and support for North Korea to overthrow the South – the essence of China’s one Korea policy of the Cold War. On the other hand, ‘peace maintenance’ implied stability outcome for Korea by recognizing South Korea and opposing provocative acts by the North which might upset the unstable peace on the Peninsula.
(2) Domestic change in China concomitant to Deng Xiaoping’s modernization reforms, and subsequent separation of politics from economics. The initial economic trade was largely indirect, transacted through third-party intermediaries or South Korean trading firms in Hong Kong. By 1985, however, total Chinese-South Korea trade surpassed that between China and North Korea. During the 1980s, while the two sides still viewed one another as military adversaries, they increasingly recognized each other as economic opportunities. The beginnings of a diplomatic relationship also emerged in the 1990s with the establishment of trade offices between the Korea Trade Promotion Association (KOTRA) and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1990, which facilitated shift from indirect trade to open and direct transactions, and subsequently in establishing formal diplomatic relations in August 1992.
(3) South Korea’s conscious policy of engagement to elicit cooperation from China, in particular using non-punitive, non-coercive diplomacy and seeking mutual accommodation. South Korea’s engagement strategy contained the following tiers: first, economic linkages, investment and trade ties to increase the benefits to China of cooperation, and the costs of non-cooperation, providing foreign capital and technology, separating political cooperation with economics, but gradually produce cooperative behavior in other arenas.
The growth of trade ties in the 1980s was a major reason why China chose to participate in the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics hosted by South Korea, which served as key event to normalize relations. Second tenet of South Korea’s engagement strategy was to treat the opposing state’s perspectives as legitimate per se. This meant engaging China’s divergent position into official dialogues on the proposals for enhancing peace and stability in the region such as the Four-Party talks, and more importantly South Korea’s recognition of One China Policy, acknowledging Beijing as the only legal government in China. These initiatives at the diplomatic front were followed by general increase in communication flows on the business, educational, and cultural levels to cultivate goodwill.
In this context, South Korea’s engagement strategy included the following goals: (1) cultivate Beijing’s cooperation by tying Chinese national interests to stability on the Peninsula; (2) improve South Korea’s credibility in the international arena by enhancing its image as a ‘regional player’ willing to reduce tensions and foster dialogue; and (3) engage North Korea through alternative channels. In order to pursue these goals, South Korea utilized the following means: in the macro-political perspective, the strategy of engagement of China was pursued through the policy of Nordpolitik and Globalization (segyehwa) which implied mutual economic prosperity as a means of expanding diplomatic ties with former adversaries as well as assuming a leading role for South Korea in international organizations and the continued expansion of program multi-directional diplomacy (i.e. using meetings of multilateral bodies such as APEC, ASEAN, non-governmental track-two diplomacy, high-level military exchanges). The second method of engagement has been sports diplomacy – participating in athletic competitions hosted by each country provided a useful means by to express good will and interest in expanding the economic cooperation (Seoul 1988 Olympics, Beijing Asian Games 1990).
What was the benchmark of success of South Korea’s engagement strategy? The key was not only engaging China, but also the terms of policy toward North Korea. The following measure could be used:
(A) Failure – Chinese support of North Korea
(B) Minimal Success – ‘1.5’ Korea policy; formal support of North Korea and de-facto recognition of South Korea
(C) Moderate Success – equidistance between North and South Korea
(D) Very Successful – discourage North Korean provocation and aggression
(E) Most Successful – China supports only South Korea
Cha argues that the outcome of South Korea’s engagement falls in the middle range (B to D). For example, Chinese behavior on the North Korean nuclear issue in 1993-94, when Beijing sided with the US and South Korea on many aspects (such as opposing North Korea to renege Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and abide to non-nuclear Peninsula), however, at the same time Beijing expressed strong opposition against any acts of coercion against the North. It persistently pressed for dialogue and negotiona as the only acceptable means of settling the dispute, and opposed any U.S. led sanctions thought the UN Security Council. A more successful outcome was the redefined Chinese behavior on UN admission of the two Koreas in 1991, in which Chinese accepted dual membership of the two Koreas in the UN.
Arguing that South Korean engagement of China has been sustained, comprehensive and moderately successful, the next question is how this new relationship will affect security on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the broader region? Salient issues include the impact of the Asian financial crisis, the dynamics of second U.S.-North Korea nuclear crisis, the effect of Bejing-Seoul dï¿½tente on South Korea’s alliance with Washington, and the future challenges that could be posed by Korean unification.
(1) The impact of the Asian Financial Crisis didn’t affect China-South Korean relations thus far. In-fact, in 2003 China has surpassed the U.S. as South Korea’s largest trading partner
(2) Sino-South Korean relations have important implications in understanding current relations between North and South Korea. Under Kim Dae Jung, South Korea initiated Sunshine Policy that rests on Seoul’s assurances of no-isolation, no destabilization, and no absorption. The Sunshine Policy is in many ways similar to the engagement strategy toward China, both in form and potential success. In particular, it is consistent (despite North’s provocations) and designed to elicit cooperation from the opposing state.
However, there are also differences- regarding intentions; for cooperation to emerge, the opposing state has to be engageable. North Korea’s behavior does not suggest she is open to an improvement of relations. Second, there are differences in South Korea’s capabilities of early 1990’s and late 1990s, in particular, in the early 1990s South Korea that engaged China did so from a position of relative strength and prosperity; however, in the late 1990s, the Asian financial crisis put South Korean position to a relative weakness., because conciliatory gestures are more likely to be interpreted as appeasement rather than engagement. Hence success to engagement of North Korea is not likely.
(3) Looking beyond the immediate North Korean nuclear problem, Korean unification raises a plethora of new factors that would test the resilience of China-South Korea engagement. The absence of the North Korean buffer would give rise to a situation in which two powers with different regimes share a contiguous border. Another future challenges is on the economic front – the rising China may hange its trade needs and increase competition with Korea. A final potential conflict between a united Korea and China centers on nationalism, and the two-million ethnic Korean living in Chinese Jilin province, which a unified Korea might claim.
In the final analysis, the dramatic transformation of Chin-South Korean relations in the 1990s represents the most successful case of engaging China in East Asia. The lessons stemming from this engagement include: (1) consistency- a policy can only be successful if it is applied consistently and deliberately, (2) engagement requires will and domestic political support to sustain the policy even in the face of little reciprocity by the other state; (3) engagement applied from a position of strength conveys credibility, but applied from a position of weakness connotes appeasement. For the foreseeable future, the burden of managing the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula falls even more on the new China-South Korea dï¿½tente and the continuing U.S.-South Korea Alliance.
Victor Cha offers a plausible analysis of the South Korea’s engagement strategy and the factors that have significantly improved Sino-South Korean relations, nonetheless, I would argue that he underestimated the historical factors that bind China and South Korea together, which might have accelerated the rapprochement on both sides. Traditionally, Korea has fallen under the Chinese sphere of influence, with Korea belonging to the first-tier state of the Sino-centered worldview. In this context, another traditional binding element is the continuing anti-Japanese sentiments and mistrust in both Koreas and China that target Japanese sense of irresponsibility and demand apology for its war atrocities. Taken together, I would argue that these factors also facilitated the relatively rapid transformation of the relations, on a personal level between Korean and Chinese officials.
In the context of enhancing peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, positive Sino-South Korean relations certainly play an important role. Both states are aware of this factor, and share similar interests. However, Beijing seems to be in a dilemma, it desperately does not want to face a collapse of North Korea nor does it want to see a nuclear North Korea. Hence, China’s actions in the foreign policy arena are still bound to the minimum necessary level to ensure stability. Ironically, while the Chinese officials have been claiming that they are making efforts to persuade North Korea to enter multilateral dialogue and negotiation, they also claim that North Korea doesn’t listen as it used to. In this regard, my question is: How much leverage does China have over North Korea? 🙂
1 From the ROK perspective, during the Cold War China was part of the communist bloc, a patron of revolutionary regimes in Asia, and thus one of the primary threats to South Korea’s survival. China’s intervention in the Korean War in 1950, in conjunction with the July 1961 Friendship Treaty between China and North Korea with its automatic intervention clause cemented South Korea’s perceptions of China as a threat. At the same time, China’s hostility toward South Korea was equally intense. South Korea was the ‘fascist’ axis of the ‘iron triangle’ that included ‘U.S. imperialism’, and ‘Japanese militarism.’