How Trump’s America helped China and South Korea become friends again
Zhang Baohui says the rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul, after relations were damaged over THAAD, has much to do with a more moderate Chinese foreign policy, inspired in no small part by the erosion of American soft power under an isolationist Donald Trump
President Moon Jae-in’s visit to China will officially end the enmity triggered by South Korea’s deployment of THAAD, the US-built missile defence system. That saw China take a number of hidden and open economic measures to retaliate against the infringement of its “core security interests”, reported to have caused substantial hardships to the South Korean economy. Moreover, the measures stirred up nationalism in both countries.
However, the Moon administration has restored the bilateral relationship. It is reported that South Korea made a “Three No’s” promise to Beijing to improve the relationship. Seoul promised it would not seek further expansion of THAAD, would not be integrated into US-led missile defence systems, and would never participate in a trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan.
In return, Beijing agreed to fully restore bilateral ties by ending hidden sanctions and by inviting Moon to visit China this week.
Multiple factors have contributed to the rapprochement. The most important one concerns China’s shift towards a softer foreign policy.
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With American soft power in global affairs collapsing under the administration of Donald Trump, Beijing has seized the opportunity to present itself as a benign and responsible leader of the world. This strategic move requires China to rely on soft power to woo other nations. The troubled relationship with Seoul benefited from this shift.
However, apart from a moderate foreign policy, there could be two other explanations behind the Beijing-Seoul rapprochement.
The first focuses on the role of individual leaders. The standard assumption in analysing foreign policies is that leaders are cool-minded people who base their decisions on rational evaluations of national interests. This is far from true. In reality, decision-makers are also human and thus liable to being influenced by emotions.
America deploys Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system 250km south of Seoul
As is widely known, Xi courted South Korea to woo it away from the US-Japan alliance. The relationship with Seoul occupied high priority on Xi’s foreign policy agenda, and he took major initiatives to establish a close relationship with the previous South Korean president, Park Geun-hye. Indeed, Park’s decision in 2015 to attend the September 3 V-Day parade in Beijing, despite strong domestic criticism, convinced the Chinese that the relationship and mutual trust had reached an all-time high.
Park Geun-hye watches Chinese military parade marking V-Day in Beijing
In that context, Park’s decision to deploy THAAD last year was a major blow to the Chinese, who felt betrayed. Xi may well have shared the feeling. It was reported that when Park tried to call Xi to explain the South Korean decision, he refused to answer the phone.
Xi’s emotions could have profoundly affected China’s response to THAAD. He had invested heavily in a special relationship with Seoul, only to be “betrayed”. Indeed, Korea was the only middle power to have received major power status in China’s foreign policy.
However, time can heal wounds and calm emotions. That was the case when South Korea elected a new president. Moon is a traditional politician from Korea’s political left, which tends to have a natural affinity with China. The leadership change made it possible for Chinese decision-makers to resolve to move beyond the THAAD issue.
The second explanation relates to China signalling its resolve to punish countries that harm its core interests. That may have been the design behind Beijing’s economic retaliation, both direct and hidden, after Seoul’s deployment of THAAD. In addition to making an attempt to have Seoul reverse its decision, Beijing was using South Korea as an example, to signal to the region that other countries cannot hope to get away with harming core Chinese interests.
In that context, South Korea became the “chicken” that had to be killed to warn the “monkeys”. The seeming Chinese intransigence on the matter was designed precisely to enhance China’s reputation that it will do what it says. Essentially, China wanted to use the case to enhance its credible deterrence against other countries that may also harm its core interests.
That China has agreed to restore the relationship with Seoul could reflect its calculation that these objectives had already been achieved. Indeed, China was seen as rather persistent and headstrong in its “punishment” of South Korea.
This image of a rather “stubborn” China successfully sent the desired signals to both South Korea and other countries – that China means what it says. It can now start to improve the damaged relationship with Seoul before strategic costs begin to exceed benefits.
However, the most important cause of the reconciliation concerns the reorientation of Chinese foreign policy. This year, the world has seen a confident China pursue and exercise international leadership. This attempt has been induced by the strategic opportunity presented by the Trump administration, which has damaged US global leadership and soft power.
According to the realist theory of international relations, great powers are typically offensive in that they utilise any opportunity to gain an advantage over strategic competitors. Trump’s neo-isolationist and unilateralist inclinations have given China a golden opportunity to enhance its prestige, status, and international leadership.
In this context, China has assumed a more moderate foreign policy stance. Beijing now emphasises the use of soft power to enhance its international standing, while downplaying the importance of traditional security issues.
To be seen and accepted as a legitimate leader in world affairs, China needs to project benign signals in both regional and global contexts. The relationship with Seoul has benefited from this development, resulting in the Chinese decision to restore bilateral ties.
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The moderation of Chinese foreign policy is beneficial not only for South Korea relations, but for the region as a whole. Indeed, there have been broad changes in China’s so-called peripheral policies. China-Japan relations have seen a marked improvement in recent months. And, in August, China and Asean signed a framework agreement for the South China Sea Code of Conduct, which seeks to resolve disputes through a multilateral mechanism.
More time is needed to ascertain its long-term effects, but the reorientation of Chinese foreign policy should benefit regional stability. While this development has, ironically, been triggered by Trump’s foreign policies, the competitive logic of great power relations nonetheless offers incentives for Beijing to vie for international leadership through better behaviour. Both Sino-Korean relations and the region may benefit from this shift.
Zhang Baohui is a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He is the author of China’s Assertive Nuclear Posture: State Security in an Anarchic International Order