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Association for Asian Studies Conference Speech
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2009.06.09   6583 
Keynote Address:

“Korea between China and the United States: To Choose or to Bridge?”

Han Sung-Joo,
Professor Emeritus, Korea University
Former Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea


Dr. Robert Buswell, President of the Association for Asian Studies, distinguished members of the Association, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here today to give this address before such a remarkable group of scholars representing an enormous spectrum of expertise and interests in Asia. As we all know, Asia is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, not only in terms of population, but in terms of economic strength and political influence as well. In the wake of the world financial crisis, relations between the U.S. and Asian countries are likely to be extremely important in the transformation of the international system. In this regard, I would like to discuss the relationship between China, the United States, and the two Koreas and to suggest a new viewpoint for examining their relations.

I would like to begin with the idea of a power shift. Is there really a power shift occurring from West to East? Several new books and reports have tried to forecast an answer for this question. Some have suggested that China’s growing international influence will replace American influence. Others have argued that China will eventually outpace the U.S. in key economic and military aspects—it has even become somewhat fashionable to say that the United States is declining and China is rising. However, this may be true only in the relative sense and only in certain aspects. Even though a power shift is taking place, of the three measures of power—military, economic, and ideological and cultural (i.e., soft power), there is not much chance or possibility that China will overtake the United States in any of the three measures or any time soon.
Despite the fact that China is not likely to overtake the U.S. in hard power or soft power resources anytime soon, it is evident that the world order is being transformed and that all countries need to prepare for the changes.

Several characterizations of the emerging 21st century global order are already being debated and discussed. Some, like Fareed Zakaria, talk of the “End of Pax Americana” and the “Post American World.” Others, like Richard Haass, have discussed the formation of a non-polarity world. Speaking about the great power relations, especially in Asia, others such as Minister Mentor of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew have argued that the “balance of influence” is replacing “balance of power.”

In this complex and changing international environment, particularly in light of the global financial crisis, China and the U.S. are likely to continue engaging each other. At the same time, they will continue to compete strongly in certain areas. In order to prevent conflicts from arising, a foundation for mutual checks and balances must be built amidst the competition. The forming of these checks and balances will require greater cooperation and interdependence with surrounding countries and middle-power countries. This means that states, like Korea and others in Asia, will have a special role to play and will have to face the dilemma of sometimes choosing sides, staying independent, or trying to reconcile and bring the two powers together.

What does all this mean for South Korea’s relationship with two major powers, the United States and China? How should countries like South Korea deal with these global transformations?

I would like to speak about this in the context of a slightly different perspective on U.S. – China – Korea relations; to suggest that the opportunities for cooperation and potential for conflict between the U.S. and China, and the particular role of Korea, can be more easily understood by examining a pair of overlapping triangles. The first triangle involves the China, the U.S. and South Korea – the second involves China, the U.S. and North Korea. We should start with a discussion about U.S. – China relations.

In his 1997 book on post-Cold War geo-politics, The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski underscored the then emerging rivalry between China and the United States in Asia. According to Dr. Brzezinski, China regards America as the perpetrator of this rivalry. "Through its Asian presence and support of Japan," he explains, the United States "stands in the way of China's external aspirations." He goes on to make the interesting assertion that the focal point of this Sino-American rivalry will be Korea. Although this assertion may be going too far, there is much truth in the notion that the two powers are intensifying their competition. Where will this competition lead?

In the post-Cold War era, as mentioned, China-U.S. relations have been one of cooperation as well as competition. In the military area, however, there is more competition than cooperation between the United States and China. The United States is concerned about the growing defense budget of China, which is estimated to be much more than what China has publicly admitted, as much as $139 billion. The possibility that Chinese missiles, estimated to be roughly 800 in number, might be deployed across the Taiwan Strait or that China might build a network of ICBMs capable of reaching and attacking the mainland U.S.A. is also extremely troubling to the U.S. The U.S. is also concerned about China’s recent purchases of advanced weapons and weapons systems from Russia and about the possibility of Western Europeans selling weapons to China even though the scale of weapons sales seems to be declining as China builds a more credible R&D base of its own.

Similarly, China seeks to act as a counterbalance to the U.S. military presence in Asia. A 2008 Chinese defense white paper stated, “The U.S. has increased its strategic attention to and input in the Asia-Pacific region, further consolidating its military alliances, adjusting its military deployment and enhancing its military capabilities.” China is unhappy about the large and continued weapons sales from the United States to Taiwan. In 2008, the Pentagon announced its plans to sell $6.5 billion of weaponry to Taiwan despite vehement protests from Beijing. China is concerned about the Missile Defense system that the United States is building and is worried about Japanese cooperation. China is also beginning to make bare its misgivings about U.S. alliances with the East Asian countries including Japan and South Korea, calling the alliance system “a relic of the Cold War.”

Thus, despite the effort to promote cooperation and confidence building in the military areas between China and the United States, the two countries, the U.S. and China, are competing with each other, suspicious of each other and attempting to constrain each other with counter-balancing acts such as strengthening existing alliances, augmenting their respective force capabilities, and installing checks on the other power that are likely to emerge and challenge the status-quo powers. This is where countries such as South Korea, who are military allies or strong economic partners with the U.S. and China, can play a large part to counter-balance the competition. But South Korea must also achieve a balance of its own political and economic interests as well. Conscious of Chinese sensitivities, for example, South Korea has refrained from full participation in the missile defense program that the United States has been promoting. On the other hand, South Korea has also agreed to what is known as “strategic flexibility,” which is another name for the possibility of the use of the alliance forces and facilities for conflicts outside the Korean Peninsula.

Yet, in the economic area, China and the United States are inexorably tied to each other and interdependent. Overall the U.S.-China bilateral trade deficit reached $256.61 billion in 2007. The United States is China’s largest trading partner and China is the second largest trading partner of the U.S. after Canada. Thirty percent of Chinese exports, amounting to $300 billion go to the United States. China owns approximately $900 billion U.S. treasury bills (out of a total of $5,500 billion) or 16 per cent of total U.S. treasury bills, the amount increasing every year. Any down-turn in the U.S. economy, for whatever reason, represents a direct and serious cut-back in Chinese exports to the United States as seen in the result of the recent economic and financial meltdown of the United States and the world.

As for South Korea, even though China represents the largest importer of Korean goods ($112 billion in 2007), some 30 per cent or a substantial portion of its exports to China ultimately end up as exports to the United States. It means that the United States remains the number one importer of Korean goods, much of it through China as a circuitous market, making Korea heavily dependent on U.S.-China inter-dependency. As the United States prospers, China also prospers, and so does South Korea. As the United States suffers economically, China suffers, and so does South Korea. Another measure of South Korea’s close relationship with both China and the United States is the number of students studying abroad in the two countries. South Korea is the country with the largest number of students – 110,000 or 15 percent of all foreign students – in the United States. It is also the country with the largest number of students – 50,000 or 40 per cent of foreign students – in China.

In the political and diplomatic sphere there is much room and need for cooperation. The United States needs Chinese cooperation in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program. China being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its cooperation is essential in virtually all critical international security matters, ranging from Darfur to Iraq, even when an issue does not come up to a vote in the Security Council. Each time North Korea ratchets up its nuclear or missile program, both the United States and South Korea lean on China to persuade North Korea to relent and cooperate. China needs U.S. understanding and acquiescence on what it considers its essentially internal matters, ranging from human rights to the Tibet problem, not to speak of Taiwan.

This information demonstrates that the evolving relationship of competition and cooperation between the United States and China represents a type of triangular pattern, one which has seen significant changes particularly in the past two decades. Until the end of the 1980s, China and the United States each had close and exclusive relationships with separate halves of Korea. Since around 1990, however, an overlapping pair of triangles has emerged—one between China, the U.S. and South Korea on the one hand, and the other between the United States, China and North Koreas. To understand the shifting triangular relationships it is necessary to examine changes in the post-Cold war context.

Restructuring in the post-Cold War order brought about new changes and challenges to the triangular relationships. Despite the changes in big-power relations, there was a lag between the thaw among the big powers, and realignment in the relationship between the major powers on the one hand and the two Koreas on the other. The ideologically-aligned alliances of China and North Korea one the one hand, and the U.S. and South Korea on the other hand, began to shift during the collapse of the Soviet Union. The effects were not fully felt in Korea until 1991 and 1992 when the Soviet Union eventually "switched sides," and China "shifted its ground," as the eminent journalist Don Oberdorfer described in his book, The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History.

Normalization of relations between China and South Korea in 1992 led to a transformation in the Cold War triangular relationships. What prompted China to "abandon" North Korea and recognize the South? In the larger scheme of things, the end of the Cold War and Sino-American accommodation led China to normalize relations with South Korea. Furthermore, a change of priorities within China made economic considerations more important than either political or military interests. China recognized that South Korea was emerging as an economic powerhouse, with which it could expect rapid growth in trade and investment, thus, the foremost reason for Beijing to seek normalization with Seoul was economic.

But China's economic interest in South Korea went beyond trade and investment. Beijing was particularly interested in the "South Korean model", whose success it attributed to the "developmental authoritarian" government maintained by Seoul during the earlier stages of its economic takeoff. Still another reason for Beijing's decision to establish full diplomatic ties with Seoul was the fact that the Soviet Union had already normalized relations with South Korea.

Since diplomatic normalization in 1992, relations between China and South Korea, especially in the economic arena, have expanded rapidly. Trade volume, which was barely over $8 billion in 1992, exceeded $100 billion by 2007. In 2008, South Korea became the 3rd largest investor in China with a total commitment of $40 billion. Thus, from China's point of view, South Korea became a major trading partner as well as an important source of investment and technology. Furthermore, for South Korea, China was a country with whom it had a substantial trade surplus (about $20 billion in 2007).

For China, South Korea's main importance has been economic. But for South Korea, China is an important country for both economic and political reasons. As the only country with any real influence over North Korea, China has played a crucial and constructive role in times of crisis. China is also important as a signatory of the Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War. At present, China finds itself caught between Pyongyang which insists on terminating the Armistice in favor of a peace treaty with the United States on the one hand, and Washington and Seoul which argue on the other hand that the Armistice should be abided by until it is replaced by an alternative peace structure.

As for North Korea, the very survival of the government depends upon Beijing's generosity. Already China has been providing large amounts of food to North Korea, and Beijing is likely to pick up the slack if the assistance of the international community falls short of the necessary minimum to keep the North Korean regime alive. At the same time, China accounts for some 80 percent of DPRK's meager oil imports. North Korea’s dependence on Chinese oil supply has increased especially since the cut-off of the heavy oil supply by the United States in 2002 in the wake of the HEU controversy. Thus China is in a position literally to make or break the North Korean regime, a matter of great consequence for South Korea as well.

Another notable development in the post-Cold War period has been the evolution of North Korean policy toward the United States. Until the end of the 1980s, America was reviled and depicted as the arch-enemy not only of North Korea but of the entire socialist world as well. In North Korea's view, the United States was the reason it did not achieve victory, and thus reunification, in the Korean War. Since then, the U.S. helped South Korea to survive and thrive. The United States loomed particularly threatening not only with its generous military assistance to the South, but also with the deployment of its own troops and weapons.

With the end of the Cold War, however, Pyongyang recognized both the need and opportunity to improve its relationship with Washington. This became especially important after South Korea normalized its relations with the Soviet Union and China. North Korea could not let these new ties go unanswered. North Korea had also grown dependent on aid from the Soviet Union and “with the collapse of the Soviets as a world superpower, the North Korean regime lost not only an important aid source, but also its main trading partner and assistance provider”.

In the midst of changing national interests and the international environment, the U.S. also considered adopting a more positive position toward North Korea. China and the Soviet Union had each formed relationships with both Koreas, and even Japan seemed about ready to jump on the "cross-recognition" bandwagon. But it was discovered that North Korea had been developing a nuclear weapons program and the nuclear issue became the major obstacle to normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea for nearly 20 years since 1990. Ultimately, starting with the first crisis of 1993-1994, China and the United States would become heavily involved in the North Korean nuclear issue.

The current stance of both the U.S. and China with regard to the North Korean nuclear issue can be more completely understood by examining this nearly twenty year history. Although the Clinton administration eventually succeeded in putting a lid on the North Korean nuclear issue with the Geneva Agreed Framework of 1994, it ran out of time as it tried to normalize relations with North Korea toward the end of its term in 2000. The Bush administration, which initially branded North Korea as a member of the Axis of Evil refused to engage in bilateral negotiation. However, after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in October 2006, the U.S. made a turnabout in early 2007 and tried to coax Pyongyang into resolving the nuclear issue through bilateral negotiations until its time ran out by the end of 2008. As North Korea is trying to use its nuclear and missile programs to upgrade its bargaining position vis-à-vis the United States and consolidate the regime at home, it is now up to the Obama Administration to decide whether it will pick up where the Bush Administration left off. Thus, how the U.S.-North Korea relations will evolve depends on North Korea’s internal dynamics, especially relating to its succession process, and the formation of Obama-Clinton foreign policy to determine how they will handle the recalcitrant North Korea.

In dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, China shares many of the same interests of the United States and South Korea. China wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and has concerns about the effect of North Korea's nuclear ambitions on Japan's nuclear policy. However, China also wants to maintain what influence it has over North Korea.

For these reasons, during the first North Korean nuclear crisis China concluded that it could not be seen as taking a clear position against the North. Instead China took a neutral position, both in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in the United Nations, and kept urging both sides to resolve the issue through dialogue. This was keeping with China’s own interests, but it also appeared that China was convinced from the outset of the crisis that what North Korea ultimately wanted was to use the nuclear card as bargaining power rather than actually intending to provoke confrontation. During the nuclear crisis, China exercised its influence over North Korea sparingly and in a way that it thought was feasible and consistent with its wish to maintain its influence. China continues to play that role on the North Korean nuclear issue to this day, although in a more active and visible way.

So for China’s part, on the Korean Peninsula, we can see that it has several interests that sometimes conflict with one another and sometimes mutually reinforce. First, China wants to see peace maintained on the Korean Peninsula. It does not wish to be affected by a conflict on its immediate borders in which it could be involved in one way or another. Second, China wants to see North Korea stay afloat as a regime and a country. A two-Koreas policy serves its interest by way of maintaining a useful buffer zone but also preventing a serious disruption, both security and demographic, on its borders. Third, China wants a denuclearized North Korea. It does not wish to see an unpredictable neighbor such as North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and missiles that can carry them to all parts of China, nor does it wish to see North Korean nuclear weapons serve as an incentive to other countries such as Japan to reconsider their non-nuclear weapons policy. Finally, China would like to continue and expand its economically beneficial relationship with South Korea, which serves as one of the largest sources of trade, technology, capital, and business know-how. In balancing and pursuing these goals, China has to cooperate with the United States and South Korea for the most part, although their views and approaches do not always coincide. Ultimately, however, it is these conflicting interests that make it difficult for China to choose between policies that further cooperation or competition with the U.S.

In the absence of a multilateral structure for regional peace and cooperation such as those found in Europe, therefore, the Korea-China-U.S. triangles present both a challenge and opportunity for all parties, but in particular for South Korea. The challenge for Korea is to stay clear of potential rivalry and conflict between and among big powers such as the United States, China and Japan. It presents an opportunity because the close involvement of the United States in this region will give Korea room to maneuver among and between the powers.

Trilateral relations have grown more complex with a divergence of views between the United States and China on the topic of regional cooperation, or community-building in East Asia. This presents a dilemma for each of the countries as their national interests dictate whether and what form of East Asian grouping they would support. The United States, for instance, places greater value and emphasis on larger Asia-Pacific cooperation over regional East Asian cooperation whereas China tends to support a relatively “purist” form of East Asian cooperation such as APT(ASEAN Plus Three). Under these circumstances, South Korea has a dilemma of its own. On the one hand, it wishes to be a core member of the Asia Pacific. On the other hand, it hopes to play the linking pin role in East Asia between the big and small countries, developed and developing economies, and continental (i.e., China) and maritime (that is, Japan) powers.

In the years to come, the most difficult challenge for South Korea will be to navigate carefully between China and the United States. This is especially important given the current international environment. Furthermore, several challenges will also remain on the Korean Peninsula itself. The Korean Peninsula will continue to be situated between and among powerful and contending neighbors, including China, Japan, the United States, and Russia. It will continue to face a North Korea, worried about its own survival, defensive about South Korean prosperity, and in need of outside economic help, brandishing weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery, and bogged down with the weight of its oppressive regime. South Korea will continue to be burdened with acute ideological cleavages and policy differences from within, regarding policy toward North Korea, relationship with the United States, and ties with China.

So even as both powers, China and the United States, prefer the stability of the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, they have to be prepared for a major change. The changing environment may require both competition and cooperation. However, for the moment, common interests between China and the United States seem to outweigh conflicting interests.

An additional concern for South Korea, in connection with China-U.S. relationship, is the possibility that their grand chess game may place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on cooperation and coordination among the big powers (in the case of Northeast Asia the big three, namely the United States, China and Japan) with the possibility of giving lighter emphasis on including the small and medium powers such as South Korea in the process. All of the big three, the United States, Japan and China seem to share an interest in forming some kind of a triad that will be able to coordinate and cooperate on policy in Northeast Asia. The United States wants to bring China and Japan together in a big-power forum. Japan would not want to be left out of a possible U.S.-China condominium. China would like to have a handle on the U.S.-Japan alliance. In this kind of a situation, South Korea has no choice but to upgrade its participation in multilateral consultations regardless of the number of participants involved.

In sum, even though elements of traditional balance of power remain in Northeast Asia, with existing alliances and emerging alignments, there is also a distinct trend of concert and what the new president of the United States Barack Obama calls coalition of interests. This is demonstrated by the changing interests and shifting nature of the trilateral relationships that exist between the U.S.-China and the two Koreas. Under these circumstances, the choices for smaller powers such as South Korea are not only between taking sides and balancing, but also between choosing one side and bringing the competing parties together in a concert and community of actors. The choice, however, would not be either a static or a comprehensive one. Depending on the issues and circumstances, one can opt for one or the other of the different choices.
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