Fresh tension over China’s new air defense zone is posing a new foreign policy test to President Park Geun-hye, who is already hamstrung by an unapologetic Japan, an impasse in inter-Korean ties and intensifying competition between the U.S. and China.
Observers say Seoul needs to craft more balanced, concrete, flexible and forward-looking policy visions to secure its strategic interests in the changing regional security environment.
Since her inauguration in February, President Park has pushed for a set of initiatives to build trust with Pyongyang through dialogue and promote multilateral cooperation to achieve peace and stability in Northeast Asia.
None of the initiatives has yielded notable results ― a reason why critics are calling on the Park government to readjust or flesh them out in more concrete terms.
“To cope with an intricate web of regional diplomatic and security issues, Seoul needs to take a balanced approach which will serve its current interests,” said Sheen Seong-ho, professor of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University.
“South Korea also needs to be more flexible in restoring ties with Japan rather than being tied up in historical issues. Maintaining a balance between policy principles and realities is also vital.”
The Park government has been working on drafting the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative to address what it calls the “Asia Paradox” ― a deepening economic interdependence in the region which is offset by an escalation in territorial rows and historical animosities.
The initiative has yet to take shape, and the “Asia Paradox” has only deepened over the past year.
China’s recent demarcation of an air defense zone in the airspace over the East China Sea has stoked regional anxiety over Beijing’s unilateral territorial assertions. Particularly for the Seoul government, which has sought to strengthen its strategic partnership with Beijing, it was a sobering reminder of power politics in the region.
Seoul demanded last week that Beijing adjust its newly drawn air zone, which overlaps with its own. But Beijing rejected the demand, raising tension in the bilateral relationship.
The growing rivalry between the U.S. and China has also posed a considerable challenge to the Park government, which has sought to improve ties with China and maintain its high-level security alliance with the U.S.
Korea-Japan relations have also been adrift due to Japanese conservatives’ lack of atonement for their country’s wartime misdeeds and pursuit of collective self-defense and heavier armaments.
Amid deteriorating bilateral relations, President Park has rejected summit proposals from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The bilateral conflict has unnerved their mutual ally, the U.S., as it could impede its regional policy to maintain stability through its alliance network and multilateral institutions.
Some observers say Seoul should take more proactive efforts to build trust with Japan in order to achieve practical cooperation in areas such as security, even though it has to take strong measures to protect its maritime interests.
Despite the Park government’s “peninsular trust-building process,” the level of mutual trust seems to be at one of its lowest ebbs, with little bilateral dialogue taking place. Analysts also argue that Seoul should take a more active, flexible approach to managing the North Korea crisis.
Continuing to stick to its nuclear adventurism, Pyongyang has reactivated its nuclear reactor in its main complex of Yongbyon, dimming the prospect of the resumption of the multilateral denuclearization talks.
“There should be stable forms of dialogue between the two Koreas so that they can take the lead in the resolution of their own issues as principal parties, rather than allowing others such as China and the U.S. to offer solutions,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org