Americans generally welcomed South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s recent four-day trip to China. They understand that solving the North Korean problem will probably require persuading the Chinese government that their country would be better off with a unified Korean Peninsula under Seoul’s leadership than with the current division in which China suffers from being the closest ally of a troublesome and ungrateful rogue state. By visiting the United States even before her China trip, Park demonstrated that she considers ties with the United States, as well as China, of great importance to South Korea and by no means exclusive or even contradictory.
Chinese policy makers may see an opportunity to exploit the acute tensions separating South Korea and Japan to weaken ties between Seoul and Washington. In general, South Koreans see the United States as their natural security partner, but according to a recent poll by the Asan Institute, a majority of South Koreans believe that Washington is mishandling Tokyo and facilitating the revival of Japanese militarism. This sentiment is also common among Chinese, whose government has sought to exploit these feelings discredit the U.S. Asian Pivot by making the same linkage.
This perception is uncommon elsewhere in Asia, where the sentiment is widespread that Japan should assume a more prominent regional role to help balance China’s rising power and influence. Although the Philippines has the only government that has explicitly urged Japan to strengthen its military presence in response to China, many people, worry more about Japan’s isolationist tendencies than about renewed Japanese imperialism.
Nonetheless, U.S. policy makers will need to address this South Korean concern, which could harm U.S. security interests in Asia. Park has said that a lasting reconciliation will occur only when the Japanese accepts historical truths and their contemporary implications. Many Japanese believe they have already apologized sufficiently for the behavior of previous generations. Abe is capable of making bold and pragmatic moves, but thus far he has refrained from doing so in the case of South Korea.
Fortunately, despite the public tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, extensive ROK-U.S.-Japan cooperation occurs below the radar screen, especially between their military establishments in what some call a “virtual alliance”.” South Korean military planners recognize that the U.S. defense of South Korea draws heavily on the Pentagon’s Japan-based assets. In this regard, the flight earlier this year of the F-22 warplanes from Japan to participate in military exercises in South Korea was a welcome reminder to Koreans of the value of their trilateral defense partnership.
U.S. policies should try to build on this military collaboration to improve other dimensions of the Sino-ROK relationship, or at least prevent the civilian tensions from infecting the beneficial professional military ties that exist between Japanese and South Korean officers.
A related complication is that some South Koreans see the Obama administration’s Asia Pivot as a U.S. effort to contain China. South Koreans will do what they can to avoid antagonizing Beijing, a major economic partner with the ROK and a key diplomatic player in Pyongyang. South Korea and China recently celebrated their twentieth anniversary of diplomatic normalization. During this period, trade between the two countries increased approximately forty times, from $6.37 billion in 1992 to $260 billion in 2012.
South Koreans recognize China’s importance as the most influential external actor in Pyongyang and as an essential participant in any regional security framework. Yet, they feel apprehensive about China’s growing influence, particularly as an element of regional instability and both Koreas’ growing dependence on the Chinese economy.
Chinese officials and experts remain divided over the value for China of the strong U.S.-ROK alliance. One the one hand, the alliance does help counter DPRK adventurism and potential Japanese militarism. On the other hand, China reacted to the strengthening of the alliance in 2010 and 2011 by moving closer to North Korea as a counterweight. More recently, China has responded to the adventurist policies of the new DPRK leadership by adopting a sterner rhetorical tone regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear policies and by imposing more prominent sanctions against the DPRK. For example, the state-controlled Bank of China announced that it would cease all dealings with North Korea’s main state bank.
Despite her rhetoric of seeking greater engagement with Beijing, President Park’s foreign policy requires a strong U.S.-South Korean alliance. It is a key aspect of Park’s strategy of promoting progress on North Korea and enhancing regional security by building trilateral trust and cooperation between China, the United States, and South Korea. Her recent visit to Washington demonstrated unity and strength in the face of Pyongyang’s recent provocations and sent a signal of resolve to the North Korean regime and other parties, including the Chinese government.
Both Seoul and Washington are counting on Beijing to help reign in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. They also hope that, at some point, Chinese experts will conclude that the PRC would be better off aligning itself with the South and supporting reunification under Seoul’s leadership, which would result in China’s having a more stable and prosperous neighbor.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.