Is Beijing, fresh from settling a dispute with Seoul over a US anti-missile shield, trying to pull South Korea away from Washington despite President Donald Trump’s recent visit? And do President Xi Jinping’s latest attempts to mend ties with both Koreas signal more effective Chinese efforts to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis while pushing back US strategy in the region?
Patricia M. Kim is a Stanton Nuclear Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington who specializes in Chinese foreign policy and Korean security issues. She says the real scenario is more nuanced and complex than that portrayed by the media and some policy sources.
A resolution of differences over the deployment of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, Kim says, doesn’t necessarily undercut US-South Korea ties or Washington’s regional strategy, as some argue. At the same time, she sees differing perceptions about what was agreed to on resolving the THAAD issue stirring possible problems for Seoul with Beijing down the line. She also says Seoul views China, more than Japan, as a potential strategic threat over the long-term.
Kim spoke with Asia Times about recent Chinese overtures to South Korea and what they mean for the balance of power in Asia.
What was South Korea’s thinking in ending the THAAD dispute with China?
The Moon administration sought a reset of relations with China for two reasons. First, Seoul clearly understands that Beijing is a critical player in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, and that it’s essential to have the ability to engage in high-level dialogue with Beijing on the issue. Since President Moon’s election in May, the strained relations between the two states have prohibited close contact, so resetting the relationship was a priority for Moon.
South Koreans harbor a lingering fear that President Xi and President Trump might cut a deal on North Korea without consulting Seoul first. Improving relations with China, therefore, was seen as a necessary step to ensure Seoul can express its views and engage in consultations with both great powers, and that it can have a seat at the table in any discussion on how the region should approach the crisis on the Korean peninsula.
The second reason why the Moon administration sought a reset was because of the need to tackle China’s economic retaliation. Various South Korean industries, ranging from tourism to entertainment, suffered heavily from Chinese economic retaliation (over THAAD) and the Moon administration faced lots of pressure from his domestic audience to quickly resolve the THAAD dispute to alleviate the economic pressure.
What is China trying to accomplish by reaching out to both South Korea and North Korea?
Beijing realized it had mishandled the THAAD issue. China took a very heavy-handed approach to try to stop South Korea from deploying THAAD. And the strategy was actually counter-productive because it pushed Seoul closer to the United States, it increased support for THAAD among average Korean citizens, and it led to the loss of goodwill and increased distrust of China among South Korean citizens, all without bringing China any strategic gains.
Perhaps the reason why the reset came in recent weeks and not right after President Moon was elected was because President Xi probably had more political space and time to engage in normalizing Chinese-South Korean relations after consolidating power at the 19th Party Congress in October.
Are there details in the settling of the THAAD dispute that the media has missed?
One thing I want to point out that the Western media hasn’t picked up is that the “three no’s” which the South Korean government articulated (that the ROK will not accept any additional THAAD batteries, that it will not join the US in a regional missile defense network, and that it will not join a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan), are not new policies.
The “three no’s” were portrayed in the Chinese press as new commitments made by South Korea. But as the ROK’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has clarified, these weren’t promises but statements of long-standing South Korean government policies. They weren’t concessions on South Korea’s part — at least from Seoul’s point of view— though they were presented as such in the Chinese media.
Will this difference in bilateral perceptions cause problems in the future?
I think these different perceptions on the “three no’s” could come back to haunt Seoul at some point by setting expectations very high in Beijing that Seoul will never engage in these activities. And anything can be interpreted as a “violation” of the stated policy. For instance, South Korea did not commit to refrain from trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan, only not to enter into a trilateral alliance, which would be an unlikely development anyway for a host of reasons. But Beijing could call out Seoul for working closely with the US and Japan in the future and point to the “three no’s” as grounds for its complaint.
What are China’s wider policy aims in resolving the THAAD dispute?
By resetting relations with South Korea, Beijing basically sent a message to North Korea, whether it intended to or not, that China is on better terms with South Korea, and that it cannot expect to exploit any gaps between the two countries. But Pyongyang already knows this.
Yes, there was a recent exchange of a diplomatic letter (between North Korea and China). But it was routine diplomatic practice and is certainly not as significant as the progress that’s been made between China and South Korea.
Will improved relations with Seoul significantly strengthen Xi’s hand in resolving the nuclear crisis?
This question assumes that Xi can and wants to actively resolve the nuclear crisis, as opposed to simply seeking to maintain the status quo and prevent war from breaking out in the region.
Will Seoul and Beijing mending ties push back US strategic designs in the region?
Not necessarily. Generally speaking, good relations between China and South Korea do not necessarily harm the US-ROK alliance or US interests. As long as the US-ROK alliance is strong, the two countries are in close consultation with each other, and they are on the same page with regards to regional policy, there’s no reason why Seoul’s improved relations with Beijing are worrisome.
I think President Moon can use the reopened high-level channels of communication with China to reiterate to President Xi on the need to continue with maximum pressure, while leaving the door to negotiations open in order to bring Pyongyang to the table with the serious intent to denuclearize.
Is the Moon administration unhappy with and suspicious of the current state of the US-ROK alliance and does this help China?
I think the Moon administration and South Korean citizens have been feeling nervous about whether war will break out on the Korean Peninsula, given President Trump’s rhetoric in the past few months. But they also understand that the US-ROK alliance is the cornerstone of their country’s security, and that a strong alliance is critical to resolve the North Korean crisis. There are obviously worries within South Korea about the Trump administration’s hardline approach to North Korea. But I don’t think this necessarily helps China.
President Trump actually did a good job of reassuring South Koreans during his visit in Seoul. He gave a well-received speech at the South Korean National Assembly, in which he emphasized how well South Korea has done under its democratic system, and highlighted its success story, which contrasts with North Korea’s plight today. He called on Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table for a better future, and I think South Koreans really appreciated this.
Does South Korea have concerns about Japanese rearmament in the face of a North Korean threat and how does this affect its strategic posturing?
I think for most South Koreans, Japanese rearmament is more of an emotional issue than a high-level strategic concern. If you polled South Korean security experts on which country poses the greatest long-term security threat to South Korea, the answer would more than likely be China, not Japan.
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times