On South Korea-China Relations after the Park-Xi Summit
CHUNG Jae Ho (Seoul National University)
During the last one year or so, it was quite common to hear that South Korea-China relations have never been better. Particularly after President Park Geun-Hye completed her three-day state visit to China in June 2013– officially dubbed as a “trip for heart-to-heart building of trust” (xinxinzhilu) –further cementing the bilateral ties by pledging to consolidate the “strategic cooperative partnership” established in 2008, high hopes and friendly sentiments were easily discernible.
In return, China’s President Xi Jinping made his first state visit to Korea during July 3-4, this year. Overall atmospheres were cordial, protocols maximum, and the schedules tight by the minute. Prior to his visit, expectations roared high in Seoul as it was highly unusual that the Chinese President would visit South Korea before he did the North. More importantly, President Xi’s itinerary for the trip had only one country - South Korea - on the list as if he had specific goals and motives in mind.
Summits rarely fail as a couple of new developments from the Park-Xi summit merit our attention. The agreement to start official negotiations in 2015 on delineating maritime boundaries including the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) is a big step forward. For one, successful win-win negotiations would eliminate for good a key obstacle to stable South Korea-China relations. For another, given that maritime territorial disputes have constituted a key area of contention and instability in East Asia, a mutually satisfying resolution by Seoul and Beijing could set a useful model for emulation with far-fetching ramifications for the region as a whole.
The consensus on setting up a new Track 1.5 meeting should also be welcome. Unlike the previous two administrations, the Park Government has thus far been lacking a channel for government-civilian dialogue with China. Having a Track 1.5 dialogue has dual benefits of allowing taboo subjects (e.g., the Korean end-game) to be dealt with in semi-official settings and of carrying some dose of formal authority that is always important to a political system like China.
As for the domains of bilateral cooperation, three key areas were identified – reduction of air pollution, collective rescue in cases of accidents and natural calamities, and increased cooperation in public health –though without delineating specific modes of operation. In the domain of bilateral economic cooperation, a big picture for the next five to ten years was apparently missing, although the target of reaching an agreement on the bilateral FTA before the end of 2014 was set. With regard to the three areas of regional and global cooperation– i.e., climate change, cyber security, and intra-regional nuclear plant safety –little was given on their specific directions.
Other than the issues discussed above, the “same bed, different dreams” phenomenon was more than visible. China’s position on North Korea and its nuclear weapons programs – at least the open side of it – was little different from the previous one, stopping short of criticizing Pyongyang and calling for the “denuclearization of North Korea.” Although President Xi allegedly expressed quite a bit on his displeasure with Pyongyang in private conversations with President Park, how much of that actually reflected the changes in Beijing’s policy line remains uncertain. Not surprisingly, President Xi again called for yet another round of the Six-Party Talks, which many pundits now consider dead if not on serious life support.
If China was lukewarm on the North Korean conundrum, it was South Korea that was equally so on the Japan question. Unlike Beijing’s expectations, South Korea did not quite go along with China in making Japan an open culprit. President Xi’s “outburst” on Japan during his speech at Seoul National University on July 4 was perhaps an indirect way of expressing his own assessment of the summit so far as the Japan problem was concerned. In retrospect, both Seoul and Beijing could have maximized on each other’s respective goal by conceding a little bit more but, apparently, classic geopolitics gained an upper hand.
A South Korean government official offered in private the following comments on the summit: “[T]he media in Seoul went too much ahead on setting the atmosphere and agendas for the summit…They were excessive and often dead wrong.” The media’s overall tone that South Korea and China are now enjoying a “mature” (even comprehensive) strategic cooperative partnership, devoid of anxieties and worries, is perhaps misleading. The fundamental sources of strategic concern remain largely intact if under hibernation, most notably the North Korean (nuclear) problem, reunification, the alliance with the United States, historical disputes, and so on.
The grace period (i.e., one or two years after the key leadership changes in both countries) is probably nearing its end. Key issues of contention keep popping up as if to test the popular discourse in South Korea that “Seoul does not have to choose between Washington and Beijing.” Thorny issues for Seoul include the missile defense (i.e., THAAD and X-band radars), the now-famous TPP-RCEP debate, the tenet of “Asian security by the Asian people” announced at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and so on and so forth.
It is almost a cliché that China is now such an important partner for South Korea, economically, diplomatically, culturally and, increasingly, militarily. Therefore, the Seoul-Beijing relationship is bound to have crucial strategic ramifications for the region as well as for key powers there. As an old saying goes: “the pessimist complaints about the wind, the optimist expects it to change, and the realists adjusts the sails.” Being a middle power in the sea of great powers, South Korea should always remain prudent and be ready to adjust its sails as the winds are by definition fickle and unpredictable. If trust-building should not be the absolute panacea for all the problems that Seoul is facing, a healthy dose of strategic suspicion must be supplemented.