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2008/05/29 11:29 KST


The Order in Northeast Asia after the ROK-PRC Summit

By Cho Seong-ryoul
(Chief Researcher, the Institute for National Security Strategy, Seoul, Korea)

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak left Seoul on May 27 for a state visit to the People's Republic of China (PRC) at the invitation of Chinese President Hu Jintao. During the trip, President Lee held a summit with President Hu, and met with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and other top Chinese officials. They were deliberating on ways to upgrade bilateral relations, the situation on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia, and other mutual interests.

Background and Meaning of the ROK-PRC summit

Relations between South Korea and China have developed so rapidly it is difficult to pinpoint how it happened. As of 2007, not only was China South Korea's top trading partner, but South Korea was China's third biggest, behind the United States and Japan. Immediately after establishing relations in 1992, the amount of trade between the two countries was only US$6.27 billion, and human exchanges numbered about 130,000. However, 15 years later, the amount of trade had expanded to US$145 billion, and the human exchanges reached 5.85 million. In the midst of a rapid development in bilateral relations, there have been serious clashes between the two countries as well, such as the garlic dispute of 2000, and China's "Northeast Project" of 2004 and 2006. As these incidents illustrate, South Korea-China relations are fragile and could easily be destroyed by unexpected variables.

   In the meantime, South Korea has adhered to "important diplomacy" with China because of its enormous trade surplus and national interests regarding the maintenance of North Korea, and China is aiming to contain US-Japan relations and neutralize South Korea by developing a diplomatic strategy of hiding its own strength until an appropriate time. However, with a decreasing trade surplus that may become a deficit within the next few years, and China's weakening leverage over North Korea due to the cooling of DPRK (North Korea)-PRC relations and improving DPRK-US relations, it is becoming doubtful whether China will continue to provide positive interests for South Korea. Also, China, which has been actively exercising great power diplomacy, has been feeling less strategic need to consider South Korea with the advent of pro-American Lee Myung-bak administration. With the shifting security situation surrounding these two countries and the strategies of both parties undergoing changes, the ROK (South Korea)-PRC relations will either revert back to the confrontational relationship of the Cold War era, or be redefined and develop into a future-oriented strategic relationship of the 21st century. In that respect, this summit meeting between South Korea and China is more important than ever.

Important items for Discussion and Matters of Concern at the Summit

The main point of concern at the first summit meeting between South Korea and China since the inauguration of Lee's administration was the issue of upgrading the relationship into a strategic partnership. Since establishing relations in 1992, the ROK-PRC relationship has developed rapidly. When then President Kim Dae-jung made a state visit to China in November 1998, the leaders agreed to form a "cooperative partnership." During then China's Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's visit to South Korea in October 2000, the leaders agreed to develop the relationship into a "full-scale, cooperative partnership."

   Following the inauguration of the Lee administration, China is showing a will to upgrade the relationship. When South Korea's special envoy Park Geun-hye visited China in January, Chinese President Hu proposed that they elevate the "full-scale, cooperative partnership" to a "strategic partnership." Chinese vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi first proposed the idea to "elevate the relationship another level" on January 14 when he was sent to Korea as a special envoy of President Hu. On February 24, State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan expressed similar thoughts when he visited South Korea to attend President Lee's inauguration.
No longer seeking to only form strategic partnership with the power players, China's change in attitude can be seen as an attempt to prevent South Korea's foreign policy from becoming completely pro-American, or even centered on a South Korea-US-Japan alliance. The Chinese government worries that President Lee's strategy to strengthen the ROK-US alliance will weaken or bring about a split in ROK-PRC relations, and therefore, is adopting an aggressive approach to maintain the relationship. In this regard, starting with President Hu's return visit, summit meetings could become a regular event.

   Other matters of concern that was discussed at the summit can be largely separated into three different areas. The first one is the strengthening of the ROK-PRC economic relationship through a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries. China has been pushing for active economic cooperation and free trade agreements in Northeast Asia. Over time, the South Korea-China economic cooperation has expanded its focus to energy and the environment, scientific technology, aviation, agriculture, the construction of social overhead capital and railways. Recently, China has been showing a very positive attitude towards signing an FTA with South Korea. It seems as though the agreement at the summit between South Korea and the US to pass the KORUS FTA before the year's end has given China incentive. However, because the influence of an FTA between South Korea and China will be vast, this issue should be dealt with carefully, considering the long-term vision of a Northeast Asian community in the next 10 years.

   The second area is strengthening cooperation on policies toward North Korea, including the nuclear issue. Because the nuclear issue is being discussed at the six-party talks, it is not difficult to pledge cooperation between South Korea and China. The issue is whether the Lee administration's policies toward the North can be accepted by the Chinese government. President Lee secured full approval from U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on his policies, including the "denuclearization, opening and 3000 dollars" plan at the ROK-US and ROK-Japan summits in April.

   The third matter of concern is constructing a close military cooperation system. In order for both countries to move forward as strategic partners, from a military and security standpoint, a military hotline must be established and both parties must agree not to use military force in any disputes. In May 2005, the top military officials of both countries agreed to install a military hotline in the form of international lines to be used between the military maneuver operations of naval and air force bases in each country. However, efforts stalled after China requested that access to the lines be lowered to the command control. China may have been aware of North Korea's military officials.

The Future of South Korea-China Relations and Order in Northeast Asia

In recent years there has been a vigorous reorganization of the order in Northeast Asia, and the Korean Peninsula is in the midst of these changes. During Bush's second term, the administration sought a comprehensive solution to the North Korean nuclear issue and began to take interest in forming a new order in Northeast Asia that includes peace on the Korean Peninsula. This was possible because the US no longer saw China as its strategic competitor but as its strategic partner. China has responded positively to this change and has stepped forward to engage in talks with both the US and Japan.

   In 1998, then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and then U.S. President Bill Clinton agreed on strategic talks between the two sides, but those talks didn't really begin until 2005. The US and China held five rounds of high-level talks on security issues from August 2005 until January of this year. They also held three rounds of ministerial-level strategic economic talks from December 2005 until December 2007. In addition, after the China-Japan talks on May 7 this year, China announced that China-Japan relations were now "strategic reciprocal relations." This formalized the China-Japan strategic economic talks held last year in December.

   China's active engagement in strategic talks with the US and Japan is aimed at preventing the US and Japan from reemploying the encirclement strategy, which was pursued against China during Bush's first term. This also explains why China began strategic talks with South Korea's new government and why China proposed elevating China-South Korea relations to a strategic partnership. Even before Lee Myung-bak took office, China was aware that his administration had plans to strengthen the South Korea-US alliance and to rebuild the South Korea-US-Japan security collaboration. Therefore, by drawing South Korea into strategic talks, China set out to block the reestablishment of the southern triangle that existed during the Cold War.

   On one hand, China is taking an appeasement approach by elevating South Korea-China relations to a strategic partnership. On the other hand, however, China is giving an indirect warning to prevent South Korea's exclusive support of America as well as the construction of a net of encirclement through the South Korea-US-Japan alliance. Chinese government party leaders and experts have expressed their position several times, saying, "There is no reason for the South Korean government to be ignorant of the fact that it is impossible to revive the South Korean economy if it disregards China." This is in reference to the fact that South Korea enjoys a yearly US$200 billion trade surplus with China, and should South Korea disregard China and excessively favor the US and Japan, it will, above all else, suffer an economic blow. The Lee administration's primary task is to revive the economy and China, as South Korea's number one trading partner, is well aware that it is difficult to expect a high GDP without its support.

   However, since the US acknowledges China as a strategic partner and China and Japan announced their strategic reciprocal relations, there is no real reason for the South Korean government to form an antagonistic relationship with China. In fact, the South Korean government is aggressively pursuing relations with China as an opportunity to achieve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The Joint Press Statement announced during the South Korea-Japan summit in April of this year revealed that "the importance of the South Korea-Japan-China regional cooperation was reconfirmed."
According to the statement, an agreement was made to hold a South Korea-China-Japan summit meeting in Japan around September. Through this first summit, new collaborative talks are expected to begin between the three countries. If the South Korea-China-Japan summit becomes a regular event, the collaboration will surpass the simple collaboration the three countries had as ASEAN+3 members. This will play an important role in constructing the framework for comprehensive security collaboration by the three principal countries of North Asia.

Implications for North Korea

With the South Korea-China summit, the new South Korean government completed its first round of summits with three powerful countries in the nearby region. However, when considering stability on the Korean Peninsula, the reality remains that talks between North Korea and South Korea have come to a halt. In this respect, South Korea must strengthen the South Korea-China collaboration.

   First, South Korea's North Korean policy must have the backing of the Chinese government. After North Korea began criticizing President Lee, it was clear that North Korea was also opposed to the president's "Vision 3000." Therefore, when taking North Korea's position into consideration, China cannot support South Korea's North Korean policy beyond the "peaceful and independent reunification of the Korean Peninsula." However, by a strengthened strategic relationship, South Korea must secure China's support. Even if it is difficult for China to express its support publicly, South Korea must secure China's support during strategic talks.

   Second, South Korea and China must establish a channel of discussion to prepare for possible instability or a crisis regarding the North Korean regime. South Korea's previous administration and the US drew up "Concept Plan 5029" in case of a sudden North Korean collapse. There was debate on elevating the plan to a tactical plan, but when South Korea opposed it discussions came to a halt until last year, when talks resumed. The US and China have already opened several channels of discussion to prepare for a possible sudden collapse of North Korea. Similarly, South Korea and China must open a channel of discussion to prepare for the possibility of such a collapse.

   Third, after making progress regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea and Japan must work together to develop North Korea's economy. China is showing signs of expanding its economic partnership with North Korea. On Jan. 30 this year, China's Vice Foreign Minister Wang visited North Korea to have a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and the following day he unexpectedly visited the Kaesong industrial complex. If there is progress in the North Korean nuclear issue, there must be a way for South Korea and China to collaborate on the industrial complex or in developing a new one.

   After President Lee's visits to the US, Japan and China, a new framework for the Northeast Asian order will take shape. Currently, North Korea's agreement to submit a declaration of its nuclear activities has contributed to talks with the US. And while the North is concentrating its efforts on engaging in talks with the US while keeping South Korea at bay, the formation of a new Northeast Asian order will inevitably result in warmer inter-Korean relations. For South Korea to take a leading role in this reorganization of the Northeast Asian order, the South Korean government must develop relations with not only the US, Japan and China, but also with North Korea.