Asia Program

Events

South Korea Views the Rise of China

March 09, 2009 // 3:30pm5:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
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Speakers: Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, Asia Foundation; L. Gordon Flake, executive director, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation; Victor Cha, director of Asian studies, Georgetown University; Samuel S. Kim, senior research scholar, Columbia University

As in the United States, South Korean perspectives on China's rise are complex. Perceptions that China is reclaiming its position as the lead nation in Asia call forth questions about South Korea's national identity and its relations with others both within and beyond the region. On March 9, the Asia Program, in conjunction with the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, hosted an event that dealt with the various perspectives within South Korea (ROK) on China's rise.

Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, explained that the normalization of the relationship between China and South Korea in 1992 was driven by economic factors, and economic interdependence has deepened since then. In 2004, China replaced the United States as South Korea's biggest trading partner and provider of foreign direct investment. Person-to-person contact has also increased, with 4.7 million South Koreans–some 10 percent of the nation's population–visiting China last year.

While China's entry into the World Trade Organization has promoted increasing bilateral trade stability, however, problems still remain. Chinese companies have presented their South Korean counterparts with stiff competition, both in terms of gaining market share in third countries and providing raw materials to South Korean manufacturers. Meanwhile, Korean firms now see China not so much as a base of cheap labor to manufacture Korean exports to the United States, but as an export destination in its own right. This has resulted in friction over China's tight technology transfer regulations and loose copyright standards. Chinese investment in South Korean firms has also resulted inindustrial relations friction. Finally, the nations have engaged in economic competition to gain political influence in North Korea (DPRK).

In his presentation, L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, continued the theme of South Korean perspectives on the DPRK-China relationship. Flake noted that while progressive governments in Seoul have argued that engagement with the DPRK helps to counter Beijing's influence over Pyongyang, the recent inauguration of conservative president Lee Myung-Bak has led to a decrease in ROK-DPRK trade. Pyongyang has responded by offering trade and investment opportunities to China. In addition, China has engaged in cooperative military exercises with the DPRK on the northern side of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.

These increased trade and security links between North Korea and China have heightened anxieties in South Korea about Chinese intentions in and influence over Pyongyang. According to Flake, such anxiety exposes tensions between South Korea's long- and short-term goals in its relations with China. On the official diplomatic level, Seoul cooperates with Beijing on the six-party talks to manage relations with the North in the short term. However, in the long term, the more active Chinese role in the six-party talks will lead Beijing to wield increasing influence over Pyongyang, an outcome that Seoul desperately wants to avoid.

According to Victor Cha, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, a significant recent reevaluation of the relationship between South Korea and China stands in contrast to the initial burst of enthusiasm that followed normalization. During the 1990s, observers were describing South Korea and China as "natural" economic partners due to their geographic proximity and common Confucian heritage. Moreover, with the United States preoccupied with events elsewhere, China and Korea could focus on deepening their mutual ties in the absence of American involvement in the region.

However, Cha presented polls to show that South Korean enthusiasm for the bilateral relationship with China has waned. For example, a poll of foreign policy experts revealed that only five percent believed China to be a force for peace and stability in the region, with 94 percent favoring the United States in this role. Cha attributed this to Chinese underperformance in all of the categories that enhanced nations' "standing" in international circles. China was not seen as a consistent follower of international rules, nor was it seen as a consistent provider of international private or public goods, its role in the six party talks aside. Cha concluded, however, that the issue of standing is not so much a problem for China as it is for the United States. With the onset of the global economic crisis, it will be harder for the United States to maintain its standing in the region than for China to increase its already-low standing.

Samuel S. Kim, senior research scholar at Columbia University, noted that the rise of China is a crucial factor in understanding the relationship between foreign policy and national identity in South Korea. Throughout its history, Korea has consistently been caught up in competition between great powers, like "a shrimp among whales." Kim explained that South Korean leaders have stressed globalization as a way of escaping this entrapment in the affairs of great powers. South Korea has thus made remarkable adjustments to harmonize its role identity with emerging trends in global politics and economies, including the rise of China. Although there were sticking points on the path to normalization with Beijing – such as Seoul's insistence that Beijing acknowledge its past aggression in the Korean War – Sino-ROK normalization was made possible by a mutual recognition of longstanding differences as well as by the improvement of inter-Korean relations.

In contrast to Cha, Kim maintained that today South Korea views China's rise without much trepidation and as an opportunity to reevaluate its relations with the United States. He also held that ROK-China relations have remained mostly warm since normalization. Even issues tied to emotional concepts of nationhood, such as historical claims about Koguryo–lands that many in China and the Koreas perceive as part of their respective national heritage–have not resulted in as much acrimony between the two nations as has often been assumed. Such issues, Kim concluded, have had almost no effect on ROK-China relations in venues such as the six-party talks.

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate.
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director. Ph: (202) 691-4020

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