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Paths to Greater Integration? The Silk Roads of China, Japan and South Korea

Nov 30 , 2016
  • P. Elisabeth Smits

    PhD candidate, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt in September 2013, followed a month later by his proposal for a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Known together as the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), they have breathed new life into the concept of a Silk Road connecting the Asian East to the European West.

A Silk Road, comprised of maritime and land routes, does not belong to China, of course. UNESCO’s map of the ancient Silk Roads, comprised of both the Silk (overland) and Spice (sea) routes from Europe to Asia, shows a network that includes Japan and the Korean peninsula. Even today, the Silk Road does not belong solely to China. In Northeast Asia, both Japan and South Korea have strategies that they identify with the concept of a Silk Road connecting East and West.
Given the Silk Road strategies of Japan and South Korea, will President Xi’s Belt and Road enhance Northeast Asian integration, either politically or economically, or could we expect it to fragment and isolate these three nations from each other?
This question is significant, for as China addresses its own domestic economic, political, and social challenges, it is also flexing its muscle as a rising regional and global power. Insight into how these countries are collaborating or competing along the Silk Road should provide clues as to how they will play out the “new Great Game” in the coming years. Will Korea move into China’s orbit in a way reminiscent of its past tribute role? Does Japan have aspirations in Central Asia that compete with China’s border and energy security activities there? Is China’s BRI reflective of its overall strategy approach to its Northeast Asian neighbors?
By looking at how the Silk Road strategies of Northeast Asia might deepen, retard, or block integration within this critical sub-region of the world, we should gain a better understanding of the dynamics not only between China, South Korea, and Japan, but also prospects for greater connectivity and interdependency amongst nations across the continent.
What do they want from the northern Silk Road?
I would suggest that the economic initiative of China’s Belt and Road Initiative is designed to achieve three priorities for President Xi: stability in the Central Asian states along China’s border and in the ethnic communities shared within its western provinces; economic development of its interior region; and a hedge against U.S. involvement in the Asia Pacific. These goals pre-date Xi: we have seen them addressed by Beijing through various actions and policies such as development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, initiation of the 1999 Western Development Plan, and comments made about United States activities in the region after 9/11, including the Obama Administration’s “New Silk Road.” The BRI might have other objectives, but these three long-standing priorities are firmly part of it.
President Park Geun-hye announced her Eurasia initiative in October 2013 as “a set of directions for making Eurasia into a single united continent: a continent of creativity and a continent of peace.”[i] Her reference to peace specifically includes inter-Korean relations, and for Park, the entire Korean Peninsula as Eurasia’s gateway to the Pacific Ocean, part of a continent integrated by rail and sea logistics networks, a Eurasian energy network, and freedom of trade and investment.
There is certainly overlap with the BRI in these goals in terms of economics. When President Xi visited Seoul in September 2014, President Park told him that she is willing to actively participate in China's Silk Road Economic Belt initiative.
Japan does not have a Silk Road strategy per se today, but its “Central Asia Plus Japan Dialogue” serves as an appropriate point of comparison. The Dialogue helps Tokyo to facilitate three main goals. First, policies toward Central Asia seem to be an attempt to balance out China’s role as a regional power. Second, Tokyo uses the Dialogue to show that it plays a global role as a supporter of universal values and development. Third, it provides a framework under which Japan can pursue deeper economic ties with the energy and resource-rich region, thereby providing it with greater energy security and infrastructure projects for its corporations.
The Central Asia Plus Japan Dialogue dates back to 2004 and focuses on areas such as energy saving, disaster prevention, and trade and investment. Prime Minister Abe toured the region in 2015, signing agreements totaling some $45 billion, while remarking that he “shared recognition that the Central Asia plus Japan framework is extremely important to regional stability.” The Dialogue today is the overall reference point for Japan’s approach to the region, supplemented by bilateral relations, as well as Japan’s participation in multilateral groups such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its Central Asia Regional Cooperation program.
Tokyo’s priorities for Silk Road cooperation, like those of Seoul’s, share economic interests with those of Beijing, hoping to enhance trade, investment and connectivity, as well as to increase access to energy. But will this lead to greater integration among the three major powers of Northeast Asia? Or will their shared – and unique – interests in the Silk Road drive them further apart?
Different paths along the same route?
At this time, I think it is reasonable to expect that because China sees the BRI as a means to address domestic economic development needs and concerns about border security, it seems unlikely that the initiative will foster integration. Korea and Japan do not share these Chinese concerns. Although they would not want to see Central Asia fall into instability, they have their own channels for addressing such developments, including with the assistance of the United States. Furthermore, although they might participate in economic opportunities that are labeled BRI, their Silk Road interests would most likely be branded as part of their own Administrations’ initiatives, not subsumed under as a Chinese vision.
Participation in increasingly connected networks could result among these countries if the new entities proposed under the BRI such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or their target audiences embrace the eSilkRoad.  Although the AIIB did attract 57 members and it has started working in tandem with the World Bank and ADB, wariness remains about its operations – and Japan has yet to join. Other networks, such as the eSilkRoad, simply have not been developed enough to judge their impact. Perhaps most tellingly in terms of Northeast Asian integration is the fact that while Beijing actively has welcomed Seoul’s participation in the BRI, it has not made such overtures to Japan – and Japan has equally remained lukewarm at best about the BRI. There is indeed reason to be skeptical that Japan and Korea are interested in supporting the Belt and Road as a platform for collaboration.
In sum, given the drivers for the Silk Road strategies of each of these nations, it would appear that the Economic Belt envisioned under the BRI will not be a source of closer political or economic ties within Northeast Asia. In fact, it may prove to encourage sharper competition in terms of economic and security interests, especially in their competition for energy resources from Central Asia. If the Belt and Road Initiative is a transcontinental play by the PRC, it remains to be seen where the eastern edges of that continent lie.
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