China is working to strengthen its strategic partnership with South Korea as it seeks to shape a new security architecture and financial institution in the region, and deepen trade relations with Asian nations in apparent efforts to undercut U.S. influence and raise its regional clout.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is to arrive in Seoul for a two-day state visit, during which he and President Park Geun-hye are to discuss ways to deepen cooperation in areas including security, trade and business.
Excluding his trip to Russia to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in February, Xi’s visit to South Korea is his first single-nation overseas trip since he was sworn in last March as president.
“The summit between Park and Xi comes at a crucial juncture, as China has been unveiling a series of external policy initiatives concerning an Asian regional security structure, the financial order, trade and energy,” said Kim Heung-kyu, professor of diplomacy at Ajou University.
“China apparently wants South Korea to positively respond to its initiatives. Having said that, the world is watching Seoul’s decisions and agreements that could come out of the summit.”
In recent years, China has made a string of apparent moves to increase its influence, including a call to create an exclusively Asian security cooperation framework to reshape the regional security order that has been dominated by the U.S.
|Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Xinhua-Yonhap)|
These moves have sparked speculation that China is seeking to revise the rules, norms and institutions of the regional order in pursuit of global dominance. Experts have said that China may seek to alter the status quo after 2020, when its gross domestic product is expected to surpass that of the U.S. as the military gap with the U.S. is likely to shrink substantially.
In May, Xi called for the creation of a new regional security framework at a security forum, stressing that Asian nations should be capable of solving their own security issues. Analysts said that the move was an attempt to build a new security mechanism in Asia to minimize U.S. influence.
During the forum, Xi also criticized military alliances in the region, calling them the “outmoded thinking of the Cold War.” His criticism appeared to have targeted the U.S., which has been seeking to strengthen its network of regional alliances under its “rebalancing” policy toward the Asia-Pacific.
On the economic front, China has been pushing for its “maritime Silk Road” concept, a foreign policy project to build ports and other elements of maritime infrastructure in partner nations, primarily in Southeast Asia.
China emphasizes the economic benefits of the maritime Silk Road economic belt, along with development opportunities, but analysts said that the scheme originates from a long-term grand strategy to secure maritime dominance.
“The Silk Road scheme appears intended to keep the U.S. in check and secure China’s energy transport routes or trade routes. It is part of its broad foreign policy strategy,” said Ahn Se-hyun, international relations professor at the University of Seoul.
“The scheme sends a strong message to the U.S. China could hamper the freedom of navigation (along the maritime Silk Road) and prevent U.S. and Japanese ships from passing through it.”
Observers said that the maritime Silk Road vision appears to be part of what Western analysts call the “string of pearls” strategy, through which China seeks to develop unimpeded, shorter and more cost-effective maritime and overland trade routes by strengthening relations with Indian Ocean states, including Pakistan and Myanmar, through economic assistance and other support.
The vital nodes in China’s grand geopolitical strategy include Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Sittawe and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar. China hopes to establish commercial ports on these nodes to reduce its heavy dependence on the risky maritime chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca.
The West has raised the suspicion that the creation of the nodes would be a prelude to building a series of naval bases that could undermine freedom of navigation and challenge the U.S. for regional primacy.
China also appears to be seeking greater clout in the regional financial order as it seeks to set up a multilateral bank to finance development projects in Asia.
China has asked a number of Asian states including South Korea to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which some Westerners suspect could be a tool to challenge existing financial institutions, such as the Asia Development Bank, which have been dominated by Western states and Japan.
A recent series of moves by China have been construed by some as “revisionist steps” that could eventually alter the current status quo. Yet, some analysts are more cautious about reaching such conclusions.
“It is too early to say that China’s diplomatic and military capabilities are nearing a stage where it can be seen as pursuing (a hegemonic status),” said Chung Sung-yoon, professor at Ilmin International Relations Institute of Korea University.
“As the Sino-U.S. competition or conflict has been noticeable in the realm of economic strength, speculation has emerged that China may be seeking some sort of hegemony. But China still has a long way until we can say China is undeniably (an aspiring hegemon).”
Analysts also pointed out that South Korea, beyond the bilateral relationship, should closely watch China’s long-term strategy and map out a foreign policy that would maximize its own strategic interests.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)