What Xi Jinping’s visit means for South Korea

What Xi Jinping’s visit means for South Korea

In early July, Xi Jinping made a monumental visit to South Korea before visiting North Korea for the first time. China shows willingness to engage in a closer relationship with South Korea right after Abe’s reinterpretation of Collective Security.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9 of the pacifist postwar Constitution on July 1, 2014 was coincidentally followed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to South Korea on July 3Xi Jinping received a warm welcome from South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

China and Korea share a common bitter history of Japanese invasion that goes back further than the last century, as Xi Jinping pointed out  in his speech at Seoul National University where he appealed to the students by making a reference to the “Japanese [Hideyoshi’s] invasion of Korea in 1592” to remind them how China and Korea have successfully cooperated to counter against Japan.

At a time when East Asian security becomes ever more delicate as China is making its foreign policy transition from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide its strength and bide its time” to Xi’s Jinping’s goal that China should be more “proactive” and become the regional leader, the visit can be interpreted as China’s willingness to draw Korea closer to its rising influence, while taking advantage of Korea’s deteriorating relations with Abe’s Japan.

It also clearly shows that China is making a move in the Korean peninsula to diminish the influence of the western order led by the U.S., and is pushing for a new order in which “security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves,” as suggested by President Xi in the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in Shanghai.

Moreover, during his Seoul National University speech, Xi Jinping said he had invited South Korea to join in the creation of “Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank” (AIIB), which is said to rival against ADB, IMF, and the World Bank. South Korea has clear strong incentives to join AIIB. The gigantic fund can significantly aid the unification process in restoring North Korea’s infrastructure upon the possible collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Park’s administration responded positively by saying it will review the proposal but the government is extremely cautious in maintaining the middle ground between the U.S. and China, as the U.S. expressed its concern and opposed Korea joining the club.

The Obama administration has tried to bring Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe closer together to bolster U.S. allies in the region as part of a broader scheme to contain China. However, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the revisitation of Kono’s statement about comfort women, and the reinterpretation of the Constitution regarding Japan’s Collective Security has significantly soured relations with South Korea.

Diplomatic relations have now become non-existent as the Park administration focuses on the comfort women issue as a top priority before trying to normalize its relationship with Japan.

China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, with total trade reaching $230 billion last year (more than the U.S. and Japan combined), and China is now undoubtedly on a “charm offensive” to weaken U.S. influence in the region.

However, China and Korea have their own, unresolved historical and territorial issues and the status quo relationship between the two nations will endure as long as China’s territorial assertiveness continues. South Korea is a staunch ally of the U.S. and the country depends on 28,500 U.S. troops for security and stability in deterring North Korea.

Most importantly, South Korea has been the greatest beneficiary of the international economic order under the umbrella of U.S. hegemony as the country successfully developed through trade by utilizing export-led growth strategy. Before other countries are willing to follow a new regional order, China needs to show more evidence of international cooperation, liberal-mindedness and transparency.

South Korea has arrived at a turning point. It is now the time for them to play a larger role as a middle power mediator before the complexity and intensity of the current situation spins out of control.

South Korea holds the key to maintaining the regional balance that can nudge the direction towards trilateral cooperation between China, South Korea, and Japan and avoid returning to the competition and conflict that have repeated throughout history. Seoul should set aside historical issues and begin a dialogue with Tokyo.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Yoon-Je Chung

Yoon-Je Chung is a specialist in East Asian affairs with experience at the Korea Chair of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is currently based in Seoul and is pursuing an MA at the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. He received his BA in Political Science and Economics from New York University.