South Korea's blossoming friendship with China can be a force for stability in a troubled region

Minghao Zhao says South Korea's growing bond with China is ringing alarms bells in the US, Japan and North Korea

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 12:54am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 12:54am

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, despite the opposition of her country's closest ally the United States, stood together recently with President Xi Jinping in Tiananmen Square to watch the military parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the second world war's end in Asia. The decision provided the most visible image yet of an emerging China-South Korea alliance, one that China believes may prevent the region from sliding into a cold war.

The region's other major actors - the US, Japan and even North Korea - look upon this blossoming friendship with considerable dread. The US is worried China is driving a wedge between its strongest Asian allies, South Korea and Japan, undermining America's capacity to offset China's rising military power.

Likewise, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is concerned that his country's closest neighbour is drifting into China's orbit.

China seems to appreciate Park's middle-power diplomacy, owing to its economic interest in avoiding the emergence of two rival blocs in Asia 

For North Korea, the South's budding friendship with China probably seems even more threatening. The Korean Peninsula is likely to experience a new round of turbulence soon. The 70th anniversary celebration of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea next month will reportedly include a large-scale military parade and ballistic missile test.

In this context, it seems likely that historical grievances with Japan are far from the only issue driving South Korea towards China. America's failure to push urgently for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is a serious problem for the South.

To be sure, South Korea and China remain deeply divided over their policies towards North Korea. Nonetheless, the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is in the interest of both countries - as well as Japan.

None of this means that South Korea is abandoning the US in favour of China. Rather, Park wants South Korea to serve as a bridge between the two powers. China seems to appreciate Park's middle-power diplomacy, owing to its economic interest in avoiding the emergence of two rival blocs in Asia - an interest that is reflected in Xi's upcoming state visit to the US.

Even as China's leaders seek to deepen ties with a variety of countries, including the US, American policymakers view South Korea's pursuit of closer ties with China as a direct threat to their country's regional primacy. At the 14th Asian Security Summit in May, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter called for a "shared regional architecture" that will enable all Asia-Pacific countries to rise peacefully. That is the right approach. But it will be impossible to achieve as long as the US is pressuring its allies to alienate, if not antagonise, China.

Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing. Copyright: Project Syndicate