Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was a recent guest at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting and has played a key role in China's push to increase ties with Islamic countries. Photo: AFP

SEOUL – In his tour of South Korea and Japan, China’s Wang Yi is punching above his weight.

In addition to holding talks with his counterparts in Tokyo and Seoul, China’s Foreign Minister has been granted meetings with both Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in.

In Asia, where face matters, the fact that China’s top diplomat is being greeted by his hosts’ national leaders, speaks volumes.

Timing matters, too. Wang’s tour follows hot on the heels of the November 15 signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact, which unites the three economies, while excluding the United States.

Wang made reference to the US in reported comments in Seoul on Thursday. “The US is not the only country in this world,” Wang said in brief comments to reporters. “There are some 190 countries in the world, and they are all independent countries … among them are China and South Korea,” which he added were “like relatives.”

Meanwhile, the broader reality of China’s soaring economic profile presents complex, behind-closed-doors and possible game-changing issues for policymakers and executives in Seoul and Tokyo to mull.

How do they square their security alliances with the United States – underwritten by shared political systems and value systems – with the fact that China, the leading trade partner of both countries, continues to expand in all directions: economic, diplomatic and strategic?

The bigger question behind Wang’s charm offensive is of long-term global significance. Can a stable, confident, assertive and economically rising China leverage Japan and South Korea away from a chaotic, self-loathing, self-questioning and economically flailing United States?

With China winning a pandemic war that the United States is losing, while inexorably adding yet more economic and technological weight to its already colossal gravitational pull, it looks like victory is inevitable for Beijing.

One tangible outcome from Wang’s two days of talks in Tokyo was a business travel bubble between China and Japan. That adds a third business bubble to those that already exist between South Korea and China, and between Japan and South Korea. 

And although, in Japan, there was “blunt” disagreement in a territorial dispute over an island chain, there were references to improved economic relationships.

In Seoul, Wang said his visit could “contribute to safeguarding regional peace and stability, promoting regional economic integration and complementing the global governance system.”

Still, there is a telling signal that not all is hunky-dory. Minimal detail is leaking out of Wang’s talks. Public statements are blah and the outcomes of the meetings are reduced to generalities about “cooperation” on Covid-19 and the economy.

This lack of detail is particularly noteworthy given the time of year.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) shaking hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during their meeting at the presidential house in Seoul. Photo: AFP/The Blue House

There is major interest in whether Chinese, Japanese and South Korean heads of state will meet – as they are scheduled to do – by the end of this year, in Seoul, for the latest round of annual talks on a trilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Due to Covid-19 and historical animosities dividing Seoul and Tokyo, these talks, which have been underway since 2002, look dead in the water at present.

Contrast the opacity surrounding Wang with that of American or European officials. Western VIPs, when visiting the region, customarily meet reporters and hold press conferences, often alongside their host counterparts.

But TV and print media based in China, South Korea and Tokyo have been able to add minimal detail over the last two days, despite the high profile and potential scope of the talks.

This is indicative of a bigger trend. While Beijing may hold the upper hand over the US in terms of economics and trade, the trans-Pacific soft-power war over political systems, values and behavior remains very much in play.    

Histories, ideologies and economies

Northeast Asia’s trio of big boys could not have more complex relationships – relationships bedeviled by ancient and modern history, 20th century ideologies and 21st century geopolitics.

For millennia, China was “The Middle Kingdom” around which Asia revolved. While oceanic Japan drew much of its culture from China, its geographic position allowed it to stand outside China’s physical aegis. Not so the kingdoms which ruled the Korean peninsula, which were largely subservient to Chinese dynasties for most of their histories.

Things changed radically when aggressive Western powers deployed gunboats deep into the east. China was the first country in what is today known as Northeast Asia to succumb. Unable to halt the inroads of the 19th century and industrially armed Western powers, “The Middle Kingdom” became “The Sick Man of Asia.”

While Korea dithered, Japan responded dynamically. Swiftly adopting Western mores and methods, Meiji Japan became, by the late 19th century, the new regional power.

Japan shoved Russia and China aside, grabbed Taiwan and Korea as colonies and asserted itself in Manchuria. But when it stormed into China proper, launching the Pacific War, matters went awry. Even an ailing China proved too big a pill for Japanese forces to swallow, leading to a brutal stalemate.

When World War II descended upon Europe, Japan sided with the Axis. She won swift victories over Western colonial powers in Southeast Asia, but remained bogged down in China and was subsequently forced backward by the US in the Pacific and Anglo-Indian forces in Burma.

US atomic bombs and a last-minute Soviet storm upon Manchuria obliterated Japan’s imperial dreams.

In the post-colonial, proto-Cold War order that became the new regional framework after 1945, China and North Korea turned red, South Korea and Japan, blue. Ideological fissures ignited a post-war war in Korea that ended in a stalemate in 1953, but continues to have ramifications to this day.

Subsequently, the US-led global trade order enabled Japan to reindustrialize and enrich herself, followed soon after by South Korea. China, under Mao, was late to the game, but rapprochement with the US, the end of the Cold War and increasingly capitalistic regimes in Beijing soon saw China rising to achieve an economic prominence that matched her demographic scale.

But the region remains divided by a history of rancor and ongoing ideological differences.

China and South Korea fought against each other between 1950-53, and though they re-established diplomatic relations in 1992, the presence of US troops in South Korea remains contentious.

China is also historically and ideologically pitted against Japan, on the basis of Tokyo’s aggression in the 1930s, and its current alliance with the US.

Washington’s alliances with Seoul and Japan are priceless for the US. They provide it with boots on Asian soil, regional forward operating bases, eyes into China and an echeloned defensive network that starts in South Korea, then stretches back through Japan, Okinawa, Guam and Hawaii to the distant US mainland.

Fortunately for Beijing, and its troublesome client state based in Pyongyang, US interests in the region are trammeled by Seoul-Tokyo animosities.

Perhaps no ex-colony on earth holds more rancor toward its ex-colonizer than Korea toward Japan. Many Koreans – who are not taught about the Holocaust in school – believe that Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the peninsula was one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity.

Their belief is fortified by the historical myopia of some Japanese politicians. The ever-present belligerence has prevented the US from forming the logical regional axis – ie, a trilateral alliance.

This situation presents a crack into which Beijing can hammer wedges. And when it comes to America’s Northeast Asian partners, China is now presented with a very large crack indeed.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga (R) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo on November 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Beijing’s 2018 and 2020 opportunities

While predictions of when it will happen vary, China has long been on course to catch up with the US economically and militarily. Nobody in Asia is blind to the high-risk ramification of this. The historical trend of a declining power colliding with a rising power is a dangerously fruitful ground for conflict.

And the standout signal sent by the Trump administration via its foreign policy was China-fear.

The trade war launched by the Trump administration against Beijing made crystal clear how worrisome China’s economic rise had become. Meanwhile, Washington’s demands that allies pay and do more focused minds in Seoul and Tokyo as it raised questions about the commitment and capabilities of the US military in the region.

In 2018, a pro-China card was added to this broad strategic deck after the Moon Jae-in administration in Seoul unilaterally ditched a 2015 Seoul-Tokyo agreement over “comfort women.” Subsequently, Seoul’s Supreme Court made a compensation ruling on wartime laborers that breached the terms of a 1965 bilateral agreement and compensation package that had enabled Seoul-Tokyo diplomatic relations.

Furious, Japan’s Shinzo Abe government retaliated with curbs on three key exports to South Korea. Seoul retaliated, South Koreans boycotted Japan and bilateral relations plunged. Though an uneasy calm has returned, no solution to Seoul’s Supreme Court ruling is apparent.

And in 2020, another, and wholly unexpected, card was added in the form of Covid-19.

The pandemic originated in China, from where it infected both South Korea and Japan. But China took a robust and effective response and all indications are that it has the virus under control. The US response, inflamed by immense political divisions roiling US society that exploded into chaos, has been ineffective.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, China’s current socio-political stability contrasts strongly with America’s pandemic-fueled social breakdowns. Secondly, China’s effective virus response has allowed it to restart its giant economic engine, churning out both internal growth and demand for overseas trade partners.

With the efficacy of imminent US vaccination programs unknown, the sound near-term economic bet for both Seoul and Tokyo must surely be on Beijing.

In the past, that was not an either-or choice. Now, Washington’s trade war with Beijing is increasingly forcing its allies’ companies to make a very, very unwelcome choice, as a possible bipolar industrial and technical world looms.

If that world eventuates, the incumbent leader, the US, may not necessarily emerge as the dominant player.

China muscles up

With a long-term industrial policy timeline – which will not be set off course by the kind of messy power shifts seen in democracies – China has the vision advantage. It is staking realistic claims to multiple next-gen technologies and is already, arguably, the global leader in robotics, 5G mobile telecoms and AI, and has set its sights on semiconductors.

Its massive home market provides fertile ground for tech startups and its best-of-breed entrepreneurs, such as Jack Ma, are alpha-plus global standard. And even though it has closed its market to external dotcoms, China has managed to incubate platforms such as AliPay and TickTock that are competitive even in Western markets.

Then there is growth potential. China’s is immense as the world’s most populous country converts millions of central Chinese peasants into members of its coastal middle classes, as seen in the recent massive plans to upgrade the Greater Bay Area in southern China.

Additional growth looks apparent in capital markets, where nascent transparency initiatives and rule-of-law upgrades look set to unlock massive value.

This is all massively attractive to Japan Inc and Korea Inc.

Beyond its own shores, Beijing recently scored a regional victory: The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, with 15 regional economies. Inside RCEP, G1 economy the US is out, but G2 economy China is in – granting it some claim to leadership of the bloc, which offers massive future potential for regional integration.

RCEP has also managed something Washington has been unable to do: Unite South Korea and Japan in an FTA.

So in the mighty tug of war between Beijing and Washington – the prize of which is winning influence over Tokyo and Seoul – all indications are that the game has been won by Beijing, right?

Not so fast.

Frenemies or enemies?

The problem China presents to millions of liberally minded South Koreans and Japanese is twofold – its threatening hard power and the increasingly autocratic nature of President Xi Jinping’s governance.

China’s military expansion is deeply troubling for Tokyo, and to a lesser extent, for Seoul. The three countries are now engaged in an under-reported but de facto regional arms race.

One military flashpoint is the disputed Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands, the scene of multiple clashes between China, wielding a maritime militia of weaponized fishing fleets, and Japanese seaborne forces. Meanwhile, an undeclared game of chicken is underway in the clouds over Japan, where Chinese warplanes routinely buzz Japan’s airspace.

Moreover, China has unilaterally emplaced an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, over a reef and adjacent waters claimed by South Korea.

Then there is Taiwan. Political voices on Japan’s right are strongly supportive of Taiwan, which, unlike Korea, enjoyed an amicable colonial relationship with the metropole. At a time of increasing Beijing assertiveness toward Taipei, Japanese sympathies are almost entirely for the latter.   

While South Korea is diplomatically reticent about joining anti-Chinese alliances like the Quad, or making human rights moves on the global stage, its recent history – the country won democracy after a decade-long student movement and “people power” protests in 1987 – makes its people look with deep distrust upon Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong.

There were clashes between pro-Hong Kong South Korean students and Chinese students on South Korean campuses reported in the South Korean media, and furors online between Chinese and South Koreans are common. One recently exploded after Korean supergroup BTS accepted a US award – named after a US, Korean War general, James Van Fleet – that sparked fury among Chinese netizens.

These Chinese moves all add to the United States’ still-powerful gravitational pull for South Korea and Japan.

US President-elect Joe Biden has phoned the leaders South Korea and Japan. Photo: AFP/Jenek Skarzynski

Why Biden must ‘Pivot to Asia’

That pull is likely to be buttressed by an early Biden policy initiative: The president-elect has made clear he will strengthen alliances – alliances that frayed under Trump, who sought to monetize the presence of GIs in both countries.

And on the trade and economic front, the incoming Biden administration has a potential weapon to counter the RCEP: the CPTPP.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, or TPP, was one the Barack Obama administration championed, but which Trump, a noted bilateralist, pulled the US out in one of his first acts in office.

That left Tokyo to take the lead in making an adjusted TPP – known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP (CPTPP) – a reality.

The CPTPP, which was signed into life in 2018, unites 11 states around the Asia-Pacific, from Northeast Asia to South America, in a giant free trade zone. Moreover, in the argot of the trade, the CPTPP is a “gold standard” FTA, while the RCEP is a “bronze standard” – meaning basically, that the CPTPP gets more done, more quickly and more transparently.

Could Biden rejoin? It looks very feasible.

One thing Trump achieved was to awaken Americans to the fact that it is now in 1-1 hegemonic competition with China as the latter ascends from superpower to hyperpower status.

In this competition – visible in Wang Yi’s ongoing tour – the manufacturing superpowers and liberal democracies of Japan are South Korea are huge prizes.  

But there is a third way. Could Biden cool Trump’s trade war and, instead, seek renewed economic competition with China? Could the United States join the RCEP? Could China join the CTPP?

These are huge questions, entailing massive risks and opportunities. This means that, even as he confronts the challenge of Covid-19, Biden with have little choice but to expend much of his presidential energy on Northeast Asia.