President Xi Jinping’s state visit to South Korea earlier this month has continued to deepen bilateral ties even though it did not yield any breakthroughs. It was less visibly successful than South Korean President Geun-hye Park’s June 27-30 visit last year to China, which yielded the Korea-China Joint Statement for Future Vision, and received very favorable media coverage in both countries as well as in the United States.
Under Xi, China has been more actively seeking to draw Seoul away from its close alignment with Washington—including by discouraging major South Korean-U.S. military exercises and Seoul’s participation in the Pentagon’s missile defense programs—as well as expand economic exchanges with the South. South Koreans now trade more with China than with Japan and the United States. China also attracts more South Korean foreign direct investment than any other country. In May, Xi advocated replacing the U.S.-led alliance system in Asia with a more comprehensive and cooperative new security structure, which would encompass both Koreas and the rest of Asia but not the United States.
In its relations with China, the Park administration strives to keep the United States in, Japan out, and push down Beijing’s support for North Korea. Park has been careful to calibrate her engagement with China by continuing good relations with Washington. Despite aiming to strengthen ties with Beijing, Park wants to maintain a strong U.S.-South Korean alliance. Although allowing South Koreans to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of securities under the Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor program, Park’s government has yet to commit to join Xi’s proposed Asian Infrastructure Bank, which some see as designed to weaken the U.S.-designed Bretton Woods system based on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Park has also avoided Chinese calls to establish a common front against Tokyo, despite having her own doubts about Tokyo’s current course. An instance of this avoidance is seen in Xi’s July 4 speech at Seoul National University. But Beijing resists South Korean suggestions that they write off North Korea as a lost cause unworthy of China’s financial and diplomatic support, even as Chinese officials no longer give Pyongyang veto power over their growing ties with Seoul, as seen in Xi’s decision to break with precedent and visit Seoul before Pyongyang.
The China-South Korea joint statement issued after the presidential summit reflected this compromise, declining to castigate either North Korea or Japan. The text did not mention North Korea’s nuclear program explicitly and simply affirmed the goal of seeing the “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” without specifying how to attain it. Its boldest clause was in the commitment to finalize the Korea-China Free Trade Agreement by the end of this year. Unless they are seeking primarily a statement of principles, achieving such a speedy deadline will prove difficult given all the complex technical obstacles involved.
The seemingly good personal relationship between Park and Xi is replicated in the warming feelings of many South Koreans toward China. According to a survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Korean views of China have risen steadily since Xi and Park came to power. They are now more favorable than in any previous Asan poll. In addition, South Koreans perceive that they need Beijing’s help to manage North Korea’s nuclear program and welcome Beijing’s growing distance from Pyongyang, while hoping that closer economic ties with China, including the Free Trade Agreement, will make South Korea more prosperous.
Nonetheless, Americans need not worry that South Korea will soon break with Washington in favor of Beijing. South Koreans still have more favorable opinions regarding the United States and its leader, President Barack Obama, than the PRC and its president. They also worry about how China’s rise could threaten regional stability, are uneasy about their country’s growing economic dependence on China and the increasing competitiveness of PRC businesses, which can benefit from China’s lower labor costs and growing technological prowess, in international markets, and believe, probably correctly, that the Chinese government does not want to see Korean reunification since they want to preserve a DPRK buffer state.
It must be underscored that South Koreans do not see China as a direct military threat. Rather, they fear that China’s growing military power will contribute to regional arms races, sharpen Asian territorial disputes, and elevate tensions between Beijing and Washington. In addition, this issue is less salient for South Koreans than how China deals with North Korea, especially its nuclear program.
Their generally good security relations was evident in how rapidly the two countries set aside their spat over China’s November 2013 declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which overlapped with South Korea’s own ADIZ and encompassed the disputed island of Leodo. Even at the time, the South Korean government expressed merely “regret” at China’s decision rather than join in the sharper denunciations of Japan and the United States. South Korea later expanded its own ADIZ to cover Leodo as well as its southern islands of Marado and Hongdo. Seoul has also adopted a low-keyed position concerning Beijing’s other territorial disputes. Yet, South Koreans would not welcome additional Chinese ADIZ declarations or other Chinese security initiatives that impinge on their vital regional interests.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.