- Is South Korea in China’s Orbit?Assessing Seoul’s Perceptions and Policies
south korea, china, rok-u.s. alliance, korean peninsula
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This article examines South Korea’s perceptions of and policies toward China, particularly since President Park Geun-hye’s inauguration in 2013, and assesses the thesis that Seoul is in the Chinese orbit.
Although the view that South Korea is tilting increasingly toward China at the expense of its relations with the U.S. has been gaining an audience in some corners of the U.S. and Japan in recent years, this thesis is largely ungrounded. It is challenged both by an assessment of Xi Jinping’s state visit to South Korea in July 2014 and by an analysis of South Korean perceptions toward China in seven issue domains: China’s rise, historical disputes, the sharing of norms and values, territorial disputes, North Korea, reunification, and the ROK-U.S. alliance. Nonetheless, nascent concerns about North Korea’s renegade behavior and China’s rise are in the backdrop of Seoul’s recent approach to China. Down the road, the number of issues over which Seoul must agonize will only increase, thereby leading the U.S. to worry about China’s influence over South Korea more often than ever before.
• South Korea’s policies and perceptions toward China, though varying by issue, overall are embedded in recognition of the high uncertainty surrounding China’s rise and how it will relate to the fate of North Korea.
• In order to mitigate or eradicate faulty assumptions and perceptions, both Track 1 and Track 1.5 dialogues need to be held more frequently between South Korea, Japan, and China, as well as between South Korea, the U.S., and China.
• The accelerating pace of China’s ascent is likely to make important issues of contention arise more frequently, pushing Seoul to choose between Washington and Beijing. [End Page 124]
The vital interests—and core goals—of the Republic of Korea (ROK) are anchored in economic growth and development, peace and security, and reunification. So far as economic interactions are concerned, China currently figures prominently vis-à-vis the United States. In terms of national security and military defense, by contrast, China pales in importance next to the ROK-U.S. alliance. Which country’s role and contribution will be deemed more pivotal to the daunting task of reunification still hangs in the air. Key questions about South Korea’s perceptions of and policies toward China are posed in this fluid and evolving context.
Since mid-2013, there has been a growing perception in Washington and Tokyo that Seoul has fallen into China’s orbit. The thesis posits that South Korea is at present tilting increasingly toward China at the expense of its relations with the United States and will eventually align itself with China.1 Such concerns originated with President Park Geun-hye’s successful state visit to China in June 2013, during which Seoul-Beijing ties were further cemented by a pledge to consolidate the “strategic cooperative partnership” established in 2008.2 Granted that it was fairly common to hear that ROK-China relations have never been better (particularly compared with the five years under Lee Myung-bak), such concerns on the part of the United States and Japan are understandable, though largely blown out of proportion.
A year after Park’s visit, President Xi Jinping reciprocated with his first state visit to South Korea in early July 2014. It was the first time that the Chinese president visited South Korea before he did the North. More importantly, President Xi’s itinerary included only one country—South Korea—as if he had specific goals and motives in mind for the visit. Naturally, the overall atmosphere was cordial, protocols were maximally accorded, schedules were planned to the minute, and hopes and expectations soared high. However, some reporting on the visit was exaggerated and assessments were inflated by [End Page 125] the news media’s eagerness to mete out positive results even before the two sides had announced their formal agreements.
This article is an empirical...