As President Park Geun-hye prepares for her meeting with President Barack Obama on October 16, her visit will bring to a close a year of intensive summitry between the US president and his key counterparts in Asia.1 On April 26-May 3, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo had what many regard as one of the most successful US-Japan state visits in the post-Cold War era. Despite concerns at home and abroad over the passage of new national security laws in September, the United States has heralded Abe’s moves to ease restrictions on the activities of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), as seen in a State Department statement, “We welcome Japan’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and play a more active role in regional and international security activities, as reflected in Japan’s new security legislation.”2 On September 24-25, Obama hosted President Xi Jinping for a state visit, and “President Xi Jinping sought to present China not just an economic powerhouse, but as a peer and a partner of the US in tackling global issues.”3 But if one looks beyond the rhetoric and posturing in virtually all presidential summits, a profound shift is taking place in the geopolitics of East Asia that necessitates key adjustments by all of the principal stakeholders, including South Korea. Japan and South Korea have begun to make their own alterations, although Japan began significantly earlier given its heightened sensitivity to expanding Chinese power.
Understanding the New Geopolitics of East Asia
America’s two closest allies in East Asia have opted for qualitatively different pivots. Japan has accentuated enhanced military capabilities as a key barometer of its new security posture, while South Korea has stressed warmer political ties with China even as it considers its alliance with the United States as the bedrock of its security policy. For Japan, the main burden of its new posture lies in convincing its Asian partners, including South Korea, of the overriding need for a more proactive security posture in the face of China’s growing military capabilities. For South Korea, the principal burden lies in assuring the United States and tangentially, Japan, that its closer relations with China will not come at the cost of core US strategic interests in Northeast Asia most pronounced by the need to counterbalance China’s expanding capabilities. Important reasons lie behind South Korea’s warming ties with China, but the most critical is the widespread belief in Seoul that without Beijing’s support, reunification is not likely to occur.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether China will ultimately choose the South rather than the North—its long-time, problematic, estranged, but still geopolitically important de facto ally—as the principal architect of a unified Korea owing to growing South Korean-Chinese economic ties and, at least for the time being, unprecedented personal chemistry between Park and Xi. Given that China has managed relations with Korea for some two millennia, even if it tilts towards the South once the unification process begins in earnest, Beijing is likely to take the long view but also attempt to extract maximum concessions from South Korea, i.e., a significantly diluted ROK-US military alliance and the withdrawal of security coordination with the United States and Japan as well as other like-minded states in the region. The Chinese strategic calculus towards South Korea has changed owing to the depth of Seoul’s economic exchanges with Beijing and the growing liability that is posed by a nuclear-armed, intransigent, and obstinate North Korea. However, debate continues on how China balances the prospects of drawing South Korea closer to its strategic orbit and the costs of losing North Korea as a buffer and, even, as a check on power that constrains China’s opponents.
While official Chinese media reporting on developments on the Korean Peninsula claim to maintain a “correct balance,” concern often centers on the US role and the US-ROK alliance as a negative factor, e.g., in reporting on high-level US-ROK defense talks in September 2015, emphasizing that the South Korean deputy defense minister stated “in his introductory remarks that this meeting was aimed at solidifying the combined defense posture of South Korea and the United States, noting that enhancing the South Korea-US combined capability of deterrence and defense is more important than anything else amid rising missile and nuclear threats from the DPRK.”4 It would be naïve to believe that China’s growing irritation with North Korea is likely to result in a definitive tilt towards the South insofar as unification is concerned or that Beijing is no longer mindful of its core strategic interests in developing closer ties with South Korea—an important partner, but a middle power on its periphery that over the longer term should become increasingly brought into China’s orbit.5 As a result, putting into place a national security strategy that enables South Korea to maintain its biggest strategic leverage—noticeably its critical alliance with the United States—while convincing China to support South Korea’s posture on unification without diluting the ROK-US alliance can be seen as the critical litmus test for Park.
Key Tasks for Seoul and Tokyo
The key challenge for Abe and Park lies in steering their core strategic assumptions into politically sustainable policies and more realistic projections that will outlast their respective years in office. For South Korea, the core assumption has evolved around the view that closer ties with China is going to result in strategic gains, i.e., de facto Chinese support for South Korea-led reunification. At the same time, although it is a perennially political nightmare to “objectively assess” Japan’s security posture and policies owing to outstanding historical legacies and South Korea’s overwhelming belief that Japan has not fully accounted for its aggression prior to and during WWII, it is also important for South Korea to understand that absent a strong US-Japan alliance—as well as an equally important US-Korea-Japan security component—South Korea’s ability to withstand progressively more difficult demands from China will be curtailed significantly. In this respect, Seoul needs a greater dosage of realism in perceiving the strategic benefits accruing from closer US-Japan ties.
For Japan, the parallel assumption is the belief that closer military ties with the United States and greater indigenous military capabilities will not only help to counterbalance China, they will also trigger bigger political dividends for Japan across Asia. But the litmus test lies in how Tokyo and Seoul seek to operationalize their key assumptions with acceptable risks. From a Japanese perspective, the long-term risk lies in over-exposing itself to military approaches when the Japanese political system continues to be embedded in the postwar Peace Constitution that was put into place by the United States. To be sure, Abe’s moves to reinterpret it is one way of skirting this issue; but if the SDF begins to take much more proactive missions well beyond its shores such as joint naval operations in and around the South China Sea that could result in limited military clashes with elements of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) under certain contingencies, such a development would unleash a new political crisis unseen in Japan since the end of WWII.
Virtually no one in Washington disputes the view that strengthened US-Japanese defense cooperation is the key to maintaining a strategic balance favorable to the United States, i.e., that “Japanese forces also could aid American ships involved in missile-defense activities in the region, or Japan could intercept a missile heading for the United States” or as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter remarked, “that is a very big change from being locally focused to being globally focused.”6 Notwithstanding the consistent and very public US support for Japan’s increasingly robust security posture, entrusting Japan as its new wingman in Asia is going to necessitate a much higher threshold of trust vis-à-vis Tokyo, particularly from the perspective of South Korea. Tokyo needs to understand that significant strategic benefits would flow from fostering genuine historical reconciliation with Seoul, enabling it to gain political leverage vis-à-vis China and enhancing strategic maneuverability in Southeast Asia.
From Seoul’s perspective, a key potential dividend flowing from closer ties with Beijing is retaining Chinese support for reunification and, simultaneously, changing the very fabric of Sino-North Korean relations. On September 3, 2015, Park was the only major democratic leader to attend China’s massive military parade that celebrated the seventieth anniversary of the ending of WWII. Park’s visit elicited significant debate within South Korea, although she received bipartisan support. As Yonhap News Agency reported, “Park’s decision has drawn some criticism that South Korea may be tilting toward China, but it underscores Seoul’s latest attempt to secure Beijing’s cooperation in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.”7 It has long been one of Seoul’s key foreign policy goals to support the creation of cleavages between Pyongyang and Beijing and in one highly symbolic development, Xi Jinping has so far refused to meet with Kim Jong-un although Kim has been in power since December 2011. As one US observer of Korean affairs noted, “to fill the space left by Kim Jong-un’s absence is, for South Korea, an important step toward gaining Beijing’s blessing for the holy grail of Korean unification that Seoul has sought for over two decades. In this respect, Park’s presence may be perceived less as a big catch for Xi than a lure through which Seoul hopes to finally hook Beijing.”8 Or as Robert E. Kelly has written:
China will not give up the North Korean ‘buffer’ lightly or soon. But Park is laying the groundwork for this long-term project. By 2007, it was pretty clear to all but the most committed leftist engager in South Korea that the Sunshine Policy had failed. Despite a decade of handouts and political protection from criticism of its unique ‘system,’ the DRPK had done little to reciprocate…With the Americans back on board, Park has taken the next step–active regional diplomacy to isolate North Korea. Pyongyang has, at best, two serious semi-friends to bail out its inefficient economy—China and Russia. Russia is almost certainly too weak, especially in Asia, and especially after the Ukraine war, to prop-up North Korea.9
Reassuring Washington, Resetting Ties with Tokyo
Park’s Washington visit is likely to hit all the right notes in terms of atmospherics, given the fundamental strength of the alliance and the chemistry that has been forged between Obama and Park, but it is not likely to resolve a growing source of strategic agitation over a progressively visible issue: how adroitly Seoul seeks to balance itself between Beijing and Washington, while more importantly, articulating a viable strategic rationale for doing so. The two leaders have to cope with more immediate security concerns such as the possibility of another North Korean long-range missile test and a progressively strengthening North Korean nuclear weapons arsenal. Since the summer of 2015, North Korea has ramped up its warnings that it has every right to test fire rockets coincident with the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). Pyongyang’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hyon Hak-bond, noted in an address on October 1, 2015, “we have nothing to be afraid of. We will go ahead, definitely, surely. We are prepared to launch at any time or any place.”10 In May 2015, North Korea announced that it had successfully test-fired a sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), and while the debate continues on whether North Korea has indeed developed an indigenous SLBM capability, such a step would be a major force-multiplier for North Korea, especially if it is able to also miniaturize nuclear warheads.11
Although joint US-ROK responses to North Korean provocations are important, there is no question that addressing China’s accelerating power projection as well as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities is the paramount strategic concern for the United States. More fundamentally, what is happening in East Asia today is a post-Cold War version of bipolarity or a new balance of power consisting of the United States and Japan on one side and China and Russia on the other, with the two Koreas aligned but pursuing some independent moves, in a context of growing strength of China and attendant adjustments. It makes eminent sense for South Korea to seek greater political space commensurate with its enhanced capabilities and international standing. But the cold reality of geopolitics is that one cannot straddle the fence—or give the impression that one is doing so—without suffering political costs. The most important reassurance that Seoul can provide Washington is by restoring the politically difficult but strategically necessary bilateral ties with Japan, clarifying South Korea’s stance on maritime security and freedom of the seas in and around the South China Sea and elevating trilateral security cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The late Margaret Thatcher, also known as the Iron Lady, once famously told President George H.W. Bush after Iraq invaded Kuwait, “this is no time to go wobbly.” The context is very different of course, but “this is no time to go wobbly” on the central merits and dividends flowing from the US-ROK alliance.
1. Park’s visit was originally scheduled for June but was postponed due to the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) crisis in South Korea at that time.
2. “US Welcomes Japan’s Enactment of New Security Legislation,” The Japan Times, September 19, 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/09/19/national/politics-diplomacy/u-s-welcomes-japans-enactment-new-security-legislation/#.VhCHzPntlBc.
3. Jeremy Page and Te-Ping Chen, “In US, Xi Touted China’s Role as Global Player,” The Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-u-s-xi-touted-chinas-role-as-global-player-1443544937.
4. “S. Korea, US Start High-level Defense Talks in Seoul About DPRK Threats,” Xinhua, September 23, 2015, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-09/23/c_134651673.htm.
5. For an in-depth review of contrasting Chinese perceptions on South Korea, see Byun See-Won, “South Korea’s Place in China’s Foreign Policy Discourse,” The Asan Forum 2, no. 3.
6. John Hirschfield Davis and Michael R. Gordon, “Japan and U.S. Set New Rules for Military Cooperation,” The New York Times, April 27, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/world/asia/japan.
7. Kim Kwang-tae, “Park Attends Military Parade in China,” Yonhap, September 3, 2015, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2015/09/03/0301000000AEN20150903003253315.html,
8. Scott Snyder, “Park’s Decision to Join Xi Jinping’s World War II Commemoration,” Asia Unbounds, September 2, 2015, http://blogs.cfr.org/asia/2015/09/02/parks-decision-to-join-xi-jinpings-world-war-ii-commemoration/.
9. Robert E. Kelly, “Why Park Geun-hye Attended China’s World War Two Military Parade,” The Lowy Interpreter, September 7, 2015, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2015/09/07/Why-Park-Geun-Hye-attended-Chinas-World-War-Two-military-parade.aspx.
10. Emma Graham-Harrison, “North Korea Prepared to Launch Missiles ‘At Any Time,’ Says Ambassador,” The Guardian, October 1, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/01/north-korea-launch-missiles-ambassador.
11. “North Korea ‘Test-Fires Submarine-Launched Missile,” BBC News, May 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/01/north-korea-launch-missiles-ambassador.