May 27, 2008

May 27, 2008 | Commentary on Asia

S. Korea's Uncertain Path With China

President Lee Myung-bak has articulated policies toward the United States, North Korea, and Japan, but has been curiously silent on defining his administration's relationship with China.

Although his forthcoming summit in Beijing may provide clues, Lee's reticence may reflect the South Korean populace's ambivalence toward a country that is both its largest trading partner and its greatest long-term geo-strategic and economic challenge.

The Blue House has announced that during his visit to Beijing, President Lee will "lay the framework for developing future-oriented South Korea-China relations by taking the overall bilateral relationship of cooperation to a higher level partnership.''

Both countries' use of the term "strategic relationship'' is significant since it marks an upgrade from previous descriptors. Upon diplomatic recognition in 1992, the two countries had a "friendship and cooperative relationship.''

That was raised to "collaborative partner'' under President Kim Dae-jung and "comprehensive collaborative partner'' during Roh Moo-hyun's administration.

Beijing's agreement to "strategic relationship'' -- which it had rejected under President Roh -- is an effort to expand ties with Seoul not only economically but also in diplomatic and security areas.

It also appears aimed at countering Lee Myung-bak's emphasis on strengthening ties with the United States. Official economic cooperation is a common currency of regional engagement. And a large South Korean business delegation will ensure business plays a prominent role during Lee's China visit.

The bloom is off the Chinese rose. Lee's visit comes shortly after Chinese students violently attacked peaceful demonstrators during the Olympic torch relay in Seoul.

That incident resurrected South Korean concerns over Chinese nationalism.

When China displaced the U.S. as South Korea's predominant trading partner in 2003, that new economic reality was seen as reflecting Seoul's political intent to distance itself from Washington.

Combined with growing strains in the South Korea-U.S. relationship, Seoul's shift in trading priorities reinforced the view that its future would be more closely aligned with China.

But Beijing's heavy-handed attempts earlier this decade to usurp a key component of Korean history triggered a heretofore unobserved level of suspicion of China.

Koreans feared that Beijing's claiming as its own the ancient Goguryeo Kingdom -- which encompassed present-day North Korea and portions of China's northeast provinces -- was a strategy to usurp Korean territory after reunification.

The need to counter China's growing economic influence over North Korea was one justification for the previous South Korean administrations' largely unconditional engagement policy toward Pyongyang.

Kim Dae-jung warned that without such engagement, North Korea risked becoming China's fourth northeastern province.

China's Economic Challenge

South Korea's economy has become increasingly dependent on the strength of China's economic growth. Any contraction of the Chinese economy would cripple South Korea's economy.

When Beijing announced in 2004 its intent to slow down China's economy to prevent it from overheating, South Korean financial markets and the won currency plummeted.

Today, South Korean economists note the country's economy is even more dependent on China's economic well-being.

Korean investment in China has proved to be a double-edged sword, since it has diminished South Korea's competitive advantage.

South Korea's under-investment in research and development has led to a dwindling technological lead over China.

The Korea Development Bank estimated in 2006 that China's technology had already reached 95 percent of Korean levels and could surpass them in almost all areas in five years.

Seoul cannot turn its back on Beijing nor can it avoid some degree of dependency on the Chinese economy. But these political and economic developments have cooled the China fever that earlier gripped South Korea and have prompted calls to reevaluate the growing strategic relationship with China.

Reprioritized Foreign Policy Objectives.

President Lee has declared his primary foreign policy goal is to repair Seoul's relations with Washington. In giving the South Korea-U.S. relationship primacy, Lee will reverse Roh's subjugation of foreign affairs to further inter-Korean ties.

Lee embraces the bilateral military alliance with the U.S. as the bedrock of South Korean security -- an approach that flatly rejects Roh's vision of Seoul serving as a balancer between the U.S. and China.

Yet, Seoul's future relationship with China remains a mystery. It will be predominantly economically focused, though necessarily balanced between the two countries as economic partners and competitors.

While Lee may seek Chinese assistance in the six-party talks to further progress toward North Korean denuclearization, he sees close trilateral coordination with the U.S. and Japan as more in line with South Korean goals.

Wary of Chinese intentions toward the Korean Peninsula, Seoul will also seek to revitalize its bilateral outreach to North Korea though with newly imposed requirements for conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency from Pyongyang.

President Lee's willingness to advocate more forcefully on behalf of North Korean refugees, including those hiding in northeast China, raises the potential for friction in the bilateral relationship with Beijing.

Finally, as Seoul and Washington work to develop a blueprint for a new strategic military alliance, Seoul may unobtrusively adopt a long-term hedging strategy against China.

Though uncertain of Beijing's intentions, China's increasing military capabilities cast a long shadow over the region.

Seoul is, naturally, extremely reticent to name China as a potential security threat.

Still, some recent South Korean military acquisitions are better suited for addressing post-unification threats than for dealing with North Korea.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Korea Times