South Korean Perspective

"New Model of Great Power Relations"

The New Sino-US Relations: A South Korean Perspective

The top leaders of the United States and China getting together to jointly articulate a vision of a “new model of great power relations” is a welcome sight for South Koreans. As a country that relies on the United States for its security while relying heavily on China for its trade, a conflict between the “G-2” is the last thing South Korea wants to see. Leading up to the Sunnylands summit, President Xi said, “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China.” At the summit, Presidents Xi and Obama agreed to work jointly for the denuclearization of North Korea. Many experts had predicted that the rise of China would inevitably lead to a conflict with the United States. The effort on the part of the United States and China to chart a new course based on cooperation and mutual benefit rather than conflict, is welcome.

However, despite the good will and personal rapport between leaders, history reminds us that we need to guard our optimism with a healthy dose of realism. The reason that the Sino-US relations articulated by Xi are called a “new model” is precisely because great power relations have almost never been that way. Genuine good will and personal trust rarely trump calculations of national interest and geopolitics. We need to remain vigilant lest the “old model” of great power relations assert itself.

Let us look at how the new great power relations between the United States and China will affect their respective policy towards North Korea. Will it bring about a new, cooperative and more proactive policy to denuclearize North Korea?

China’s new leaders face enormous domestic challenges. After decades of rapid growth, China is now grappling with some of the negative consequences of a growth model that has served her so well until now. The widening gap between the rich and the poor and the coastal areas and the interior, youth unemployment, urbanization, environmental degradation, and ethnic unrest, are all compounded by the political challenge of battling endemic corruption. In the face of such daunting domestic challenges, it is perhaps understandable that foreign and national security policy issues remain low priorities for China’s top leaders.

Even when the leaders are able to turn their attention to foreign and national security policy issues, their priorities are clear: Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, Diaoyu/Senkaku, and the South China Sea. North Korea comes last, if at all. Perhaps, that is why when it comes to North Korea, China seems so firmly committed to the maintenance of the status quo.

Whenever North Korea commits provocations against South Korea China counsels “patience” and “calm” on “all parties.” China also continues to call for South Korea and the United States to provide North Korea with a “security guarantee” and a “security environment that would make North Korea feel safe.” Only then, China argues, would North Korea come to the negotiating table and eventually open and reform its economy.

However, North Korea’s tense security situation is of its own creation. The real threat to regime survival comes not from the outside world, but from the internal contradictions of the decrepit political and economic system it has built for itself.

Even when North Korea conducts nuclear tests, China continues to call for patience, even “strategic patience,” as one top Chinese official mentioned during the recent South Korea-China summit in Beijing. Like North Korea, China insists that the only way to solve the North Korea nuclear issue is by returning to a “dialogue” through the Six-Party Talks.

To be sure, at the recently concluded Park-Xi Summit, as well as the earlier Obama-Xi summit, China’s top leaders all called for the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Many observers took this as an encouraging sign of a shift in China’s North Korea policy. However, the choice of wording is revealing. What is being called for is not the denuclearization of “North Korea” as South Korea and the United States are insisting, but of the “Korean Peninsula.” This is precisely what North Korea continues to demand.

The problem with this is that there are no nuclear weapons in South Korea, as North Koreans and Chinese fully know. The tactical nuclear weapons that the United States used to maintain in South Korea were all withdrawn voluntarily in 1991, just prior to the joint “South-North Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Today, the only nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula are those in North Korea. To call for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, rather than of North Korea, is not only to support the North Korean position, but also to blur the issue. Little seems to have changed.

The problem is that time is rapidly running out. North Korea continues to develop and perfect its nuclear arsenal undeterred. It is only a matter of time before it will come into possession of operational nuclear capability. To continue to call for patience and a return to dialogue simply for the sake of talks is to aid and abet North Korea’s bid to build more nuclear weapons. The time for strategic patience has passed.

The United States is also preoccupied with domestic matters. Its domestic economy, despite some signs of recovery, is far from healthy. Political polarization is paralyzing the ability of the US government to undertake the reforms necessary to put the US economy back on its feet. In the meantime, sequestration and deep budget cuts are affecting the government’s ability to function. The defense budget is undergoing drastic cuts. A combination of severe budgetary constraints and understandable fatigue with overseas involvement among the public has even led to increasing calls for policies that smack of isolationism.

When it comes to foreign and national security policy issues, Asia seems to be low on the US list of priorities. Despite the policy of “rebalancing” to Asia, the United States remains bogged down in the Middle East. Even when it comes to nuclear proliferation, Iran seems to take up most of its attention. During Secretary of State John Kerry’s confirmation hearings, Iran was mentioned 30 times, North Korea only three. At Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s hearings, Iran was mentioned 169 times, North Korea only 11. All this, despite the fact that experts agree North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is at least two-to-three years ahead of Iran’s.

Given the budgetary and attention deficit, it is perhaps understandable that the United States increasingly seems to rely on China to solve the North Korean nuclear issue. However, if this is indeed the case, the long-term consequence for South Korea’s strategic position in the region is dire.

Today, South Korea’s economy is heavily dependent on China’s. South Korea’s trade volume with China far exceeds that of South Korea’s trade with the United States and Japan combined. Now, South Korea needs to rely increasingly on China to solve its most pressing national security issue: North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The United States, South Korea’s ally, seems to be encouraging this trend, albeit unconsciously.

Against such a reading of the geopolitics of East Asia, the “new model of great power relations” acquires a more ambiguous meaning. If the relationship is premised upon the US commitment to the region decreasing despite its best intentions, while the slack is being taken up by a rising, but status quo oriented, China, the situation looks very unpromising for South Korea.

For one, the North Korean nuclear problem will not be solved, but continue to worsen. At the same time, South Korea will increasingly come under China’s sphere of influence. This may even result in the “Finlandization” of South Korea, as some fear.

This is probably the worst case scenario. US-China relations may actually become cooperative and mutually beneficial, unprecedented in history. The G-2 may actually agree on putting the denuclearization of North Korea at the top of its bilateral agenda. The Korean Peninsula may not only become free of nuclear weapons, but also united.

After all, we have been witness to visionary strategic choices made by China’s leaders in the recent past that have fundamentally altered the geopolitics of East Asia and beyond. The normalization of relations between South Korea and China in 1992 was one such case. Such a strategic choice has brought peace and prosperity to the region unimaginable two decades ago. The time has come for another strategic shift on the part of China and the United States.

However, such a shift will not happen automatically. It is a goal that all the powers have to work for together based on a shared vision of the future of the region.

North Korea today remains a “black hole” at the center of Northeast Asia, economically the most dynamic region in the world. The opening of North Korea will eliminate the last hurdle to even greater peace and prosperity in the region. It will bring unparalleled economic opportunity not only to North Korea, but to China, Russia, and Japan, not to speak of South Korea. It will eliminate one of the most intractable and costly strategic and security problems for all the parties concerned, including China and the United States. This is certainly a goal worth pursuing for all the countries in the region.

However, none of this vision for the future can be realized unless and until North Korea is first denuclearized. To counter historical trends and geopolitical inertia will require the collective wisdom and will of all the leaders and nations of the region. Otherwise, there will be nothing “new” in the “new model of great power relations.”