Recently, tensions have risen significantly in Northeast Asia as a rivalry between the United States and Japan on one side and China and Russia on the other takes shape.
Last month, China and Russia held large-scale joint naval drills in the East China Sea, demonstrating the growing military ties between the two nations. The exercises were staged north of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the subject of an escalating territorial dispute between China and Japan.
The drills were seen as the two countries’ response to the moves of the United States and Japan to strengthen their military alliance. The U.S. is seeking to reassert its dominant position in the region, while Japan is rushing to strengthen its military to counter China.
The deepening great power standoff in the region has heightened security concerns among Koreans, reminding many of the old saying “When whales fight, it is the shrimp’s back that is broken.”
Some pundits argue that the Seoul government needs to find ways to avoid the fate of the proverbial shrimp caught in the middle of a fight between whales. In their view, the country faces a dilemma: It is under growing pressure to make a choice between the two sides, while it can hardly afford to choose one over the other. They suggest that the only way out for Seoul is to become a permanently neutral country.
The shrimp analogy was valid when South Korea was a small, poor country. In the past, it had been frequently victimized by its larger, powerful neighbors. However, the old saying has lost its relevance as South Korea is no longer a tiny, helpless country bullied by its big neighbors.
South Korea’s substantial political and economic muscle has earned it global recognition as a middle power, a country that exercises some influence on global affairs based on its strength to stand on its own.
As Seoul can influence the geopolitical balance of power in Northeast Asia, a region emerging as the new global center of gravity, it is now aggressively courted by powerful countries. This has provided Korea with more room for diplomatic maneuver. So Seoul officials need to break out of their victim mentality to take advantage of the expanded diplomatic space.
Nothing illustrates the nation’s enhanced strategic importance better than Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to visit Seoul before going to Pyongyang. Xi is the first Chinese leader to do so since the two countries normalized ties in 1992.
During his July 3-4 visit to Seoul, Xi is expected to mount a charm offensive. Chinese officials say Xi’s trip to Seoul ahead of Pyongyang reflects China’s wish to forge a long-term partnership with South Korea that is not swayed by other countries, such as Japan and the U.S.
In this regard, China has reportedly proposed to upgrade the Seoul-Beijing relationship from the current “strategic cooperative partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership” to enhance cooperation in the military, security and safety sectors.
A comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership is the highest level of partnership that China has with a foreign country. It has forged such a partnership with Russia and some Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand.
The proposed partnership upgrade, however, would not mean much to Seoul if it is of little help in denuclearizing North Korea and paving the way to unification of the Korean Peninsula.
As Xi’s visit to Seoul indicates, China’s perception of North Korea has changed. Previously, the two traditional allies were fond of using the “teeth and lips” analogy to describe their close alliance. These days, Chinese officials deny that Beijing is in a military alliance with Pyongyang.
But when it comes to the issue of the North’s nuclear program, China has still not taken any decisive steps to resolve it. China says Xi’s decision to visit Seoul before Pyongyang is intended to put pressure on the North. But that is not enough.
During her summit with Xi, President Park Geun-hye needs to press him to take stronger measures to remove the North’s nuclear threat, as it constitutes the biggest obstacle to elevating bilateral ties to a higher level.
Xi’s charm offensive is intended to prevent Seoul from joining Washington and Tokyo to form a trilateral alliance against China. Seoul officials need to tread carefully. They have to respond to China’s overtures without undermining the Seoul-Washington alliance, the bedrock of South Korea’s security.
But ironically, what is preventing the three allies from forging a common front against China is not so much Beijing’s conscious effort to drive a wedge among them as Tokyo’s irrational behavior toward Seoul.
The Tokyo government has recently disclosed its review of the background of the Kono Statement, one of Japan’s key apologies for forcing women from Korea and elsewhere into sexual slavery during World War II.
The review was designed to undercut the 1993 statement, which is regarded by Seoul as one of the cornerstones of the bilateral relationship. Its release therefore put the already icy Seoul-Tokyo ties in the deep freeze.
The widening rift between Seoul and Tokyo is the last thing that Washington wants to see, as it has worked hard to cement security ties among the three allies. But the U.S. has refrained from taking any action against Japan.
Washington’s attitude is difficult to understand. As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has recently noted, Washington has a role to play to solve the escalating row between Seoul and Tokyo.
Seoul officials need to urge Washington to rein in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he is doing harm not just to Japan but to its allies by pandering to ultra-nationalist conservatives.
Tokyo has also made Seoul and Washington uncomfortable by contacting North Korea unilaterally to resume negotiations on the abduction issue. The allies support Japan’s efforts to resolve the thorny issue. But at the same time they are worried that Japan may fall out of step with the international community in sanctioning North Korea.
As a great power rivalry shapes up in Northeast Asia amid the continuing nuclear threat from North Korea, the Seoul government faces more diverse, complex security challenges.
Yet it also offers opportunities for Korea to maximize its national interests and play a bigger role in bringing peace and stability to the region.
As a middle power, Korea can and should spearhead efforts to turn standoff among great powers into cooperation among them. This is exactly what President Park Geun-hye’s Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative is all about. Yet the initiative still remains a vague proposal. Park needs to flesh it out.
By Yu Kun-ha
Yu Kun-ha is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.