South Korea is considering a major shift in foreign policy in which it would align itself with China, an emerging East Asian superpower that Seoul views as a counterbalance to former colonial master Japan, former U.S. officials and analysts say.
The move toward China by South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally, appears to contradict U.S. efforts to block recent Chinese military thrusts toward the Philippines and Taiwan, including boosting Japan's security role.
"China is actively courting South Korea . . . and South Korea loves it," Richard Solomon, former assistant secretary of state for Asia, said in an interview yesterday.
The Clinton administration sought to portray the South Korean moves toward China as positive.
"It's an extemely healthy development that South Korea develop a relationship with Beijing," said a senior State Department official. "It can only improve prospects of resolution between North and South because China has an interest in avoiding conflict in the peninsula."
South Korea is sidling up to China because of doubts in Seoul about the durability of the U.S. military umbrella over Asia at a time of Pentagon cutbacks, as illustrated by the closing of bases in the nearby Philippines, the possibility of increasing U.S. isolationism and the growing economic and military power of China.
The United States defended Korea from an invasion by the Chinese-backed North at a cost of 57,000 American lives in a U.N. operation that remains inconclusive 43 years after the armistice. About 35,000 U.S. troops still are stationed in South Korea.
For its part, China has been boosting its contacts with Seoul with important state visits such as President Jiang Zemin's five-day trip to South Korea in November.
In Washington, the recent Chinese military maneuvers off Taiwan, intended to intimidate voters, and aggressive moves in the contested Spratly Islands off the Philippines have been deeply troubling.
President Clinton attended an April Asian security meeting in Tokyo that was regarded by analysts as anti-China. Sino-American relations have been sour for a year.
"Vis-a-vis the North and vis-a-vis Japan, [China's friendship with South Korea] gives them a sense of protection," said Mr. Solomon, currently president of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"Everyone I met in Seoul is talking about the new relationship with China," said former British diplomat Jonathan Clarke, a Cato Institute foreign policy analyst recently returned from meetings with South Korean officials.
"They are looking to the future when the United States might be overshadowed by China," he said. "They were upset by the Tokyo security summit, which they saw as giving a green light to Japan for power projection."
The United States urged Japan to increase its military role in the Pacific to take some of the burden off U.S. forces, which are deployed worldwide. But any military move by Japan is certain to worry its Asian neighbors, whose memories of Japanese occupation during World War II remain fresh.
South Korea suffered a humiliating and sometimes brutal occupation by Japan in the first half of this century until Japan's defeat in World War II. Major colonial-era government buildings in Korea have been dynamited in recent years simply to obliterate the memory of that occupation. …