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    Korea
     May 12, 2011


'Seductive' China to strain Seoul's US ties
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - The United States has bristled at the notion that South Korea, its close, reliable East Asian security partner, could one day turn its back on the US and draw closer to China.

Discussions on maintaining the US-South Korean alliance in Seoul this week became heated when Chang Dal-joong, professor at Seoul National University said that South Korean public sentiment "is divided as to whether we should team up with the US or China".

Chang was speaking at a forum hosted by South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo and US think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It featured heavyweights such as Richard Armitage, former US deputy secretary of state under president George W Bush and included a visit to the presidential Blue

 
House to meet with Lee Myung-bak and his national security advisors.

"This is a major decision South Korea may have to face in the future, although this is something that could receive criticism," said Chang.

Chang was right. His remarks drew an immediate and sharp response from Michael Green, former director for Asian Affairs at the US National Security Council. He said that choosing sides before has resulted in "tragedy."

"Absolute consistency with the US alliance is better," Green counseled the Korean audience watching the debate.

The US-South Korean relationship is thought to have been strengthened in the wake of last year's attacks on South Korea, the sinking of a naval corvette and shelling of an island. In response, the US sent an aircraft carrier to Korean waters to participate in joint military exercises.

James Jones, former US White House national security adviser, didn't conceal his alarm over the idea. He was "struck by the comment that South Korea has to choose sides", advising the Koreans that such a decision was "unnecessary", JoongAng reported.

Though it was shocking for US officials, Chang actually raised a common topic in South Korea: how China's rise could increasingly reconfigure Seoul's traditionally staunch alliance relationship with Washington.

"Those in the current Lee Myung-bak administration still favor an alliance with Washington," said Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul. "They still view China as a country to guard against because it is a communist nation. They fear China. But a view that the current South Korea-Washington relationship is too tilted to one side is increasingly gaining an audience."

Though the controversy at the forum focused on China, there were no Chinese participants. There, Armitage characterized China's rise as "messy", adding, "China has embarked on a significant financial expansion, but until she can stand for something larger than herself, she can't truly be great on the global stage."

Despite its absence from the forum, China likely paid attention to it as it senses "South Korea is at a crossroads," said Yang Xiyu, former director of Office for Korean Peninsula Issues at the Chinese foreign ministry. "In fact, many foreign observers have been watching the debate in South Korea. South Korea is at crossroads. The conclusion of the debate will not only decide South Korea's future fate, but it will also produce a profound impact on the political landscape in East Asia, which also includes China and Japan."

South Korea's diplomatic soul-searching vis-a-vis its relationship with the world's superpower isn't new. Its immediate neighbor, Japan, tried and felt the pinch. Former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama called in 2009 for an "East Asian Community", a regional cooperation community inclusive of China and South Korea but exclusive of the United States. The US frowned upon the bold initiative, and Washington's refusal to relocate a military base in Japan brought about Hatoyama's downfall.

Since then, the US has used the sinking of the Cheonan as an opportunity to return to East Asia and strengthen alliances with Japan and South Korea on its traditional turf, pushing back the trend among Asian countries to form their own alliances.

Sensing that Tokyo and Seoul's good faith to Washington was being tested by a seductive Beijing that is increasingly influential and affluent, the US in December staged a telling photo-op with foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan, not inviting their Chinese counterpart, under the diplomatic cover of displaying solidarity against North Korea's provocations.

The Korean Peninsula is a strategic venue where China and Washington compete for leadership. South Korea, as the world's 14th largest economy, is likely to play a more important role as Japan, formerly the world's second- and now third-largest economy, loses its economic steam. This could see China forge a deeper economic and strategic partnership with Seoul, and Beijing has already been wooing the South with a comprehensive free-trade agreement that has political as well as economic aspects.

But under the Lee Myung-bak administration, Seoul has been conspicuously leaning closer toward Washington. China also has developed some suspicions over Seoul's closeness to Washington.

"Right now, we have a situation in which China perceives the policy of South Korean administration as adverse to China's interests. China seems to be suspicious about the Lee Myung-bak administration's interests and intent," said Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy of the Asia Foundation.

"It's also true that under the current Lee administration, the alliance with the United States has come to be perceived by China as a zero-sum game. It's not in South Korea's interest to allow that kind of perception to grow, because South Korea's interest is not having to choose between the US and China. That does not necessarily forge South Korea's foreign policy objectives."

China's most important national goal is to achieve a comprehensive economic and military modernization of the country by 2050, said Hwang Jae-ho, an expert on China at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul. "In the process, it is paying close attention to what stance is taken by neighboring countries." Hwang doesn't believe China's goal is to pull Seoul away from Washington's gravitational pull.

Yang, the former Chinese Foreign Ministry official, agreed: "China hopes the US-South Korean alliance will remain a pure bilateral military arrangement that serves only for South Korea's national security." Yang said that China would respond "very severely" if the US-South Korea alliance plays a bigger regional function.

"If this were to happen, South Korean territory will become a US military operational field. Frankly speaking, if there were military conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, and if the US decided to jump into the Taiwan conflict, then it is highly possible that some kind of US military forces will be sent from military bases in South Korea. Then, South Korea will be fooled into a conflict even though it doesn't have any interest in involving in it. That poses a potential risk for South Korean security," Yang said.

Moon at Yonsei University also said Seoul should not opt for a "zero-sum" choice. "Seoul should resist the voice that demands it align with Washington completely because the US is strong. Seoul should also resist completely siding with Beijing, either, because China is rising. Both are all self-defeating measures. Getting on the bandwagon completely either on China or on the US exclusively will endanger South Korea's security environment," said Moon.

Moon argues that Seoul should continue the current alliance with Washington while forming a multilateral security cooperative regime in East Asia with China and other regional powers.

But some analysts believe that's easier said than done, pointing out the deep suspicions between China and the United States, the internal divide in South Korean domestic politics that often displays a tendency of all-out favoritism to either Washington or Beijing, and the issue of North Korea that has many times in the past divided the countries participating in the six-party talks on the North's nuclear program.

"I think South Korea is already stuck in this strategic dilemma," said Shin Gi-wook, director of the Walter H Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. He foresees that the challenge Seoul faces in the coming years will remain the same: how to balance the two major stakeholders in East Asia.

Sunny Lee (sleethenational@gmail.com) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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