BOOK REVIEW The dragon's shadow China's Rise and the Two Koreas by Scott Snyder
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
China's unprecedented economic growth in the past two decades opened avenues
for its commercial influence to expand extensively in East Asia. Economic
cooperation between China and South Korea, in particular, was unstoppable and
drowned out the former's long-standing ideological closeness to North Korea.
Flourishing economic exchanges between China and South Korea were viewed by the
North as Beijing's betrayal of socialist ideals, but Pyongyang was helpless to
prevent Beijing's new economic thrust in the region.
China's redirection of peninsular policy in favor of the South not only shook
the North but also gnawed at the foundations of old
alliance systems in the entire region. American scholar Scott Snyder's new book
argues that although China's economic influence on the peninsula may not have
fully transformed the security policies of the two Koreas, it does challenge
the primacy of the United States.
At the same time, the author is not sanguine about predictions that formation
of a new "outside alliance" between Beijing and Seoul is only a matter of time.
In his estimate, "it is not clear" whether future circumstances will force
South Korea to snap its security alliance with the US and end up bag and
baggage in China's strategic embrace.
Many South Koreans are uncomfortable with the notion of subordination to China,
an anxiety fueled by potential flashpoints and disputes between the two
countries. Wary of economic over-dependence on China and worried about China
surpassing South Korea in global economic competitiveness, Seoul signed a
free-trade agreement with Washington in 2007. A total strategic realignment of
the South in favor of China is thus unforeseeable.
The early chapters of Snyder's book survey why and how China shifted from a
"One Korea" stand to a "Two Koreas" policy. As early as 1985, Chinese patriarch
Deng Xiaoping had decided that China needed healthy relations with South Korea
to benefit the business and economic interests of both sides. Also intent on
trade gains, the Roh Tae-woo presidency in Seoul conceded to Chinese demands in
1992 by cutting all South Korean links with Taiwan. The perceived economic
advantage was the prime enabler of Sino-South Korean normalization.
As bilateral trade grew at double-digit rates for over 15 years, a corporate
"China lobby" arose in Seoul. China's vast pool of cheap labor and rising South
Korean wage rates drove copious South Korean foreign investment into Chinese
manufacturing units. Snyder adds that China's explicit acknowledgement that
South Korea was a model for its own economic modernization also spurred
relations. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997, China even learned from
South Korea's mistakes in banking, currency and borrowing policies.
China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 triggered a
second wave of "China fever" in South Korea, which became the leading foreign
investor in China by 2004. Continuing the learning trend, Chinese workers on
short-term overseas training contracts spent time in South Korea acquiring new
By 2005, however, South Korean firms began hurting from Chinese competition in
international markets. As China's production capacity in higher value-added
sectors improved, it faced South Korean anti-dumping suits at the WTO. Thus
far, the two sides have averted retaliatory trade measures, but public
perceptions are hardening that each is taking undue advantage of the other.
China's new foreign direct investment policies requiring technology transfer
and production for the Chinese domestic consumer market are frustrating South
Korean-invested firms. Industrial espionage by Chinese employees and
sub-contractors at South Korean-owned companies is threatening the South's
thinning technological lead over China. Snyder quotes a South Korean observer
that the economic relationship "will be transformed into a kind of competition
and then a China problem and China threat as time goes by". (p 77)
In the political sphere, China and South Korea have been cooperating through
regional institutions and dialogues, with shared objectives on the thorny North
Korean nuclear issue. But since 2004, problems that had been swept under the
carpet to keep oiling the economic partnership could no longer be hidden.
China's claims on the ancient Koguryo kingdom inflamed South Korean nationalism
and raised specters of a China-centered East Asian order that would dent Korean
China's access to mining and natural resource concessions in North Korea
sparked renewed anxieties in the South that Beijing would thwart a Seoul-led
Korean reunification process. In the past few years, harsh Chinese crackdowns
on North Korean refugees have also drawn the ire of South Korean human-rights
The middle chapters of Snyder's book address the hot-button topic of Sino-North
Korean relations. Chinese policymakers justify massive food and energy aid to
Pyongyang as a "strategic" necessity to forestall a regime collapse and refugee
influx from the North. China has tried to shift trade with the North from
subsidies to market-based terms, but failed as Pyongyang sank further into an
In 2001, North Korean supremo Kim Jong-il displayed a burst of enthusiasm for
the Chinese model of economic growth, but he flattered to deceive. China had to
bribe North Korea with assistance worth US$50 million in 2004 to get Pyongyang
to participate in the six-party talks. In 2005, China unveiled a $2 billion
"comprehensive assistance package" to "bind Kim Jong-il closer to Beijing" (p
126) and to ease the pressures on the Korean-populated north-eastern border
region of China.
Snyder deduces a contradiction between China's need to keep North Korea in its
orbit for a "foothold on the peninsula" (p145) and its rhetorical support for
Korean reunification. A corollary contradiction lies in China's interest in
denuclearizing the peninsula and its insistence that such an outcome not
enhance the "guiding role" of the US in the region.
Pyongyang's nuclear test in 2006 "shocked" China as it had been advising Kim
Jong-il not to resort to such extreme measures. After that event, two schools
on the North have emerged in China. One camp contends that "we cannot slap the
DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] down as that would undermine
China's influence over North Korea and give the US the upper hand". (p 155)
The other camp wants Beijing to be Washington's "constructive collaborator" in
pushing Pyongyang to denuclearize. The former's hand seems stronger overall, as
China has been reluctant to coerce the North to eschew nuclear brinkmanship.
Snyder attributes this stance to China's premonition that punitive measures
would "further diminish Beijing's leverage" on the peninsula. (p 158)
The author next explores the triangle wherein South Korea depends on China for
economic growth and on the US for security. He refers to the leading South
Korean thinker Chung Jae-ho's view that a strategic realignment by Seoul
towards Beijing and away from Washington is "highly unlikely, at least in the
near term". (p 166) The US and South Korea, says Snyder, are "still in a
'marriage', even if it might not always seem so stable". (p 168) The election
of the pro-US Lee Myung-bak as South Korea's president in 2007 in fact
surprised Chinese strategists who presumed that the South was a "low-hanging
fruit ripened by Sino-South Korean trade". (p 176)
Although South Korea's quasi-alliance with Japan has clear counterbalancing
intent against China, it is dogged by recurring tensions over historical
crimes. So bitter is Seoul's row with Tokyo on the contents of Japanese
textbooks that it prompts US officials to "doubt South Korea's reliability as
an ally". (p 192) Seoul wants to avoid being dragged into a "new Cold War" in
Asia that might jeopardize its economic partnership with China. Even
conservative South Korean strategists now "think twice about Chinese
perceptions" (p 196) before contemplating participation in multilateral
security systems aimed at hedging against China's rise.
Yet, countervailing political and economic factors have made South Koreans
tread gingerly, lest they land in the Chinese lap. The South Korean public's
resistance to Chinese hegemony is emotional and deep-seated, just as strong as
it is towards American highhandedness. Korean "anti-hegemonism” and Chinese
suspicions that the US could manipulate the peninsular reunification project
leave open the old characteristic of regional rivalries in Northeast Asia. So,
despite major changes in economic relationships since the Sino-South Korean
entente, the security picture is as contested as it was during the Cold War.
Snyder's account is decidedly pro-American for endorsing Washington's claim
that its military footprint is a force for good that stabilizes the region. He
overlooks the perspective that the US itself is a stumbling block for Korean
reunification. That said, his core theme about China attempting to leverage
economic interdependence for strategic ends helps appraise how the dragon's
shadow is lengthening over East Asia.
China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security by Scott
Snyder. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, 2009. ISBN: 978-1-58826-622-4.
Price: US$22.50, 241 Pages.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal
Global Law School in Sonipat, India.