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South Korea and US-China Relations: A Shrimp among Whales?

Some observers claim East Asia is currently witnessing a paradigm clash between the post-war liberal international order created by advanced democracies including South Korea and Japan and led by the United States, and a Sinocentric order that China seems to be interested in reviving. The challenge for South Korea as one of the largest democracies in the region is how to maintain and promote a secure, open and rules-based international order in East Asia and how to help socialise China into this order for the benefit of all.

President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in front of the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing on June 27) Photo: korea.net

The U.S.–South Korea relationship is arguably in its best shape since the formation of their alliance in 1953, and cooperation on North Korea policy has been particularly close. The two countries have adjusted their alliance in the face of a changing threat from Pyongyang – particularly following North Korea’s actions in 2016, which include its fourth and fifth nuclear weapons tests in January and September; a satellite launch in February; and over two dozen ballistic missile tests, including a test in August of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). The U.S. and South Korea successfully pushed to expand UN Security Council sanctions and launched a global campaign to persuade other countries to curtail relations with North Korea. They also announced that they would deploy the Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system in South Korea, a step that drew strong criticism from China.

A US Nighthawk fighter jet on an airstrip in Korea

While China does not want South Korea to be further integrated into U.S. security arrangements in Northeast Asia, its unwillingness or inability to restrain North Korea is producing exactly the result it does not want – a strengthening of the U.S.-ROK security arrangement directed against North Korea and potentially against China. In particular, Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD must be seen in this light.

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has become more reliant than ever on nationalism for its legitimacy. Beijing has become more assertive in staking its claims in the East China and South China Seas, defining much of these maritime areas as part of its core interests, and has reacted sharply to the assertion of claims by others. The Obama administration`s decision to launch a US pivot to Asia in 2011 coincided with Beijing`s growing military assertiveness in the region, including territorial disputes with its neighbours in the East China and South China Seas, and Beijing’s dubious island reclamation activities in that area.

Since assuming office in 2012, President Xi Jinping seems to have had warmer relations with South Korea than North Korea, and has downgraded China’s traditionally special relations with Pyongyang, a move much welcomed by Seoul. More prominently, in 2014 Xi became the first Chinese president to visit Seoul prior to making a visit to Pyongyang. Furthermore, President Park Geun-hye attended China’s Victory Day parade in Beijing in 2015. And despite opposition by the U.S., South Korea ultimately decided to participate in the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member earlier this year and also concluded a free trade agreement with China in 2015.

Today, over 20 percent of South Korea’s total trade is with China, twice the level for South Korea-U.S. and South Korea-Japan trade. As such, the gap between South Korea`s dependence on China for its economic growth, and the US for its security has widened significantly over the past years. This complex security situation is often referred to by President Park as a Northeast Asian `paradox` in which there is a `disconnect between growing economic interdependence on the one hand and limited political-security cooperation on the other’. South Korea’s underlying strategic concern is that its dependence on the United States for security could become incompatible with its economic reliance on China.

China, however, remains deeply concerned about the prospect of the Kim regime collapsing. This could result in an exodus across the border with China and potentially a massive refugee crisis in China’s struggling three north-eastern provinces, or even a war on the Peninsula. China will have to carefully calculate the benefits of continuing to support an unstable and belligerent North Korea against the costs of a reinvigorated U.S.-South Korea security alliance. Meanwhile, the U.S. under a new Trump administration will continue to face the challenge of supporting South Korea and reassuring China that such support is geared to maintaining regional stability rather than countering Beijing.

In the context of this complex security environment and uncertain political situation at home, Seoul will continue to strive to achieve a delicate balance between the United States and China. At the same time, South Korea’s relations with middle powers such as Japan will be almost as important as finding an appropriate diplomatic balance between the two superpowers. South Korea’s success or failure in dealing with these multiple strategic issues is likely to shape the future evolution of the region. South Korea, in today’s geo-political environment, cannot simply be regarded as a shrimp living among whales.

Robert G. Patman, Professor of International Relations | University of Otago

Patman’s research interests concern US foreign policy, international relations, global security, great powers and the Horn of Africa. He is an editor for the journal International Studies Perspectives, and the author or editor of 11 books, including China and the International System: Becoming a World Power (Routledge, 2013). He is a Fulbright Senior Scholar, a Senior Fellow at the Centre of Strategic Studies, Wellington, an Honorary Professor of the NZ Defence Command and Staff College, Trentham, and provides regular contributions to the national and international media on global issues and events.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

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8 February 2017