IPCS Special Commentary

South Korea and China: Park’s Visit and After

02 Jul, 2013    ·   4017

Sandip Kumar Mishra analyses the strategic implications of President Park's visit to China

In her recent visit to China, South Korean President Park Geun-hyu emphasised the pivotal role of China in determining the security and economic architecture of Northeast Asia and her visit was an apparently successful attempt to connect with China in a varied field of activities. Apart from other factors, there are three important reasons why South Korea made a decisive attempt to reach out to China. First, China enjoys more leverage over North Korea than any other country and the good offices of China would be crucial in either engaging or containing North Korea. Second, China is one of the two most important players in determining the security architecture of the Northeast Asia, along with the US. Third, China offers the highest possibilities of economic opportunities for South Korea and bilateral trade between the two countries is already more than the South Korean trade with the US and Japan combined.

The South Korean attempt to reach out to China is based on the fact that the previous South Korea administration was excessively tilted to its old ally - the US, and political and security understanding between China and South Korea got visibly constrained. President Park Geun-hye tried to correct South Korea’s unproductive tilt toward Washington and has been trying to bring in a non-zero-sum game in South Korean relations with the US and China. After her inauguration, she made her first foreign official visit to the US and the recent visit to China was to emphasise different nature of trilateral game. Fortunately, in between,  Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Washington and the US and China showed their intention to compete but coexist in Asian politics.

The most critical and eminent issue in the Park Geun-hye visit was to put pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme and also positively respond to the South Korean ‘trust politik’ which has been announced by Park Geun-hye from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the policy, which recommends a process of trust building between the two Koreas, has not been moving forward. There might be a few contradictions in the policy as it requires North Korea to first behave in a more responsible manner, which does not look probable until there is no trust deficit between the two countries; the policy has been announced with good intentions. South Korea assumes that any North Korea policy would not be successful until China is also brought on board.

The previous South Korean administration tried to have a tough policy toward North Korea and did not corroborate its policy with China and it could be the most plausible reason for its failure. North Korea had two nuclear tests in 2009 and 2013 and several other unfortunate incidents such as the shooting of South Korean tourists at the Mout Kumgang Tourist Area in 2008 which resulted in closure of the project itself, Cheonan incident in March 2010, and Yeonpyeong Islands incident in November 2010 led to a huge curtailment in the channels of communication between South and North Korea. The Six-party talks which were essentially a Chinese initiative to bring the concerned parties to the negotiating table to denuclearise North Korea are also almost dead. South Korea has learned a hard lesson out of all these failures and Chinese role has been re-emphasised in the policy making. The visit of President Park Geun-hye was part of this re-orientation.

The significance of China was again realised, when security tensions on the Korean peninsula escalated amidst the renewed sanctions on North Korea after its third nuclear test in February and in the wake of South Korea-US joint military exercise in the West Sea. It is believed that North Korea changed its posture only after China conveyed a strong message against it. The US foreign Secretary James Kelly’s visit to China could be identified as a turning point as China decided to put more pressure on North Korea. In fact, China does not have any strong aversion to North Korean nuclear weapons programme per se but its repercussions such as Japan and South Korea going nuclear or more American presence and preparedness in the regional security affairs could not be acceptable to China. The events during the recent escalation in March 2013, led to reemphasise the point to Chinese policy makers that a nuclear-North Korea would be detrimental for its national interests.

During the visit, The South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed goal of denuclearising North Korea but the Chinese President was less direct and used expressions like a nuclear weapons free Korean peninsula. It might be less than South Korean expectations but the fact is that there have been, officially, no tactical or other nuclear weapons in the South Korean territory and the expression was, in essence, meant to the North Korean nuclear programme. China has given clear indications during Xi Jinping’s summit meet with Barack Obama in early June 2013 that a nuclear North Korea is not acceptable and it again underlined its commitment and resolve.

Chinese constructive intervention in the matter was also felt when North Korea offered talks with South Korea and even to the US. Even though, the inter-Korea talks could not materialise because North Korea was not satisfied with rank of South Korea representative in the talks and the US has urged North Korea to show sincere evidence toward denuclearisation to have any bilateral talks, it is a clear sign that North Korea has been forced to negotiate and reluctantly but visibly it has been trying to show China that it has been doing its best. It would be a test of Chinese diplomacy to successfully engage both South and North Korea and bring them to reach out each other. A North Korean delegation visited Beijing few days before the President Park Geun-hye visit and tried to persuade China to understand North Korean perspective on the issue. The outcomes of the visit of President Park Geun-hye to China indicate that
China is more convinced with the South Korean ‘trust politik’ than North Korean point of view.

However, it should be underlined that it does not mean that China is going to abandon North Korea and make any fundamental change in its foreign policy vis-à-vis North Korea. As it happened during the Six-party talks, China is ready to play role of neutral arbitrator between South and North Korea, if South Korea does not remain a prisoner of its alliance with the US. China which has been having tenacious relations with Japan over the Islands dispute, competing relationship with the US after the US re-entry in the Asia-Pacific and not a pleasant relationship with North Korea after rounds of undeterred provocations.

In this scenario, China would like to explore the possibility of a common security understanding with South Korea in future. Chinese special gestures during the South Korean President’s visit indicate Chinese intentions in this regard. While formulating a response to the North Korean nuclear issue and its relationship with South Korea, China would also take into account Russian approach toward North Korea. North Korea is well aware about its options and there are reports that Pyongyang is going to send a delegation to Russia in July to explore common grounds. China would be definitely keen to know about their relations. The success of the South Korean President’s visit lies in initiating an important correction of the previous South Korean administration’s policy mistake but it would be premature to expect that it would change China-North Korea relations in any fundamental way.

Although, the North Korean nuclear issue was central to the South Korean President’s visit to China, the visit was also significant for probing about a different security architecture for the region. The US and China, the two most important players in the regions are going to deal each other in variety of ways. The importance of Korean peninsula could not be overemphasised in the process. South Korea has announced a Northeast Asia peace and cooperation initiative, which is also called ‘Seoul Initiative’ in the region, which advocates trust building among the regional countries and cooperation in ‘low’ politics and finally extending it to ‘high’ politics.

Unfortunately, the tension on the Korean peninsula emanating from North Korean provocations or South Korean hard-line policy toward North Korea, Japan-China dispute over the Islands, Japanese right-wing rhetoric, the US re-entry in the Asia-Pacific and Chinese aggressive posture in recent years, pose a serious challenge to this initiative. The South Korean President’s visit would definitely bring constructive intervention in the process. It would be easier for China and the US to identify common security imperatives. The visit and its outcomes would also put pressure on Japan to review its aggressive policy and statements. More than anything else, it would create a bridge between the divide in the regional politics where South Korea, Japan and the US are considered to be on one side and China and North Korea are considered to be on another side. Again, it must be restated that the complex political and security calculus of the Northeast Asia is a product of years of hostility and conflict and any fundamental change might not be seen in near future. However, a trust building process between South Korea and China would be a very important beginning. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special interests in the President Park Geun-hye’s visit, in which both the leaders had talks for more than seven hours and agreed to establish direct phone lines at various levels, underlined this fact.

During the ASEAN Regional Forum Meeting in Brunei also, the foreign ministers of ARF countries agreed on the denuclearisation of North Korea. It was important as the meeting happened during the same time China and South Korea were having summit meet in Beijing. North Korea is a member of the ARF and even though Pyongyang’s demands for a non-aggressive South Korea and the US were heard but the crux of the ARF meeting’s stand was that North Korea must be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons programme. The context of ARF meet and its stand on the North Korean nuclear ambition must be read along with outcomes of the summit meet between South Korea and China.

The South Korean President’s visit to China was also important as Seoul wanted to underline their bilateral economic partnership which has grown exceptionally in just two decades. China became the largest trading partner of South Korea in 2004, just twelve years after the normalisation of their relationship in 1992. The bilateral trade has reached 256.3 billion US dollar and in the summit meet, both the countries fixed their target of 300 billion by 2015.  The composition of South Korean delegation during the President Park Geun-hye’s visit consisted of 71 top business leaders and in last day of her visit she visited Xian area, which is identified as a possible hub of South Korea business activities in China. Both the countries also expressed their willingness to have Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and concerned representatives of both the countries are going to hasten the process.

The South Korean President, during her visit to China, also tried to reach the Chinese people. She is supposed to be fluent in Chinese language and she made the first part of her address in Tsinghua University in Chinese. It was indeed a special state visit of South Korean President, which touched the right chords in the right manner and the Chinese response was also positive. Both countries signed seven agreements pertaining to several areas including enhancing educational and cultural exchange between the two countries. People to people relations have become more important in modern days of open diplomacy between the countries. Already, South Korean presence in China and Chinese presence in South Korea is significant and to further increase it or to upgrade already existing presence would definitely bring both countries close to each other.

In brief, South Korean President’s visit to China was an important moment for the emerging political and economic framework of the Northeast Asia. The amount of enthusiasm shown by both the countries about the summit meet is symbolic of the fact that the success of the process would not only lead to a nuclear free Korean peninsula but could also establish a framework of common security in the region. The growing economic exchanges and understanding between South Korea and China would also affect the nature of contest between the US and China in the region and beyond. Although, it would not be appropriate to say that the South Korean President’s successful visit to China alone would be able to achieve this objective. Definitely, role of other regional players including North Korea would be important. However, the visit definitely marks an important beginning and it is to be seen how far and in which manner the process in sustained.