Academic journal article Asia Policy

Is South Korea in China's Orbit? Assessing Seoul's Perceptions and Policies

Academic journal article Asia Policy

Is South Korea in China's Orbit? Assessing Seoul's Perceptions and Policies

Article excerpt

The vital interests-and core goals-of the Republic of Korea (ROK) are anchored in economic growth and development, peace and security, and reunification. So far as economic interactions are concerned, China currently figures prominently vis-à-vis the United States. In terms of national security and military defense, by contrast, China pales in importance next to the ROK-U.S. alliance. Which country's role and contribution will be deemed more pivotal to the daunting task of reunification still hangs in the air. Key questions about South Korea's perceptions of and policies toward China are posed in this fluid and evolving context.

Since mid-2013, there has been a growing perception in Washington and Tokyo that Seoul has fallen into China's orbit. The thesis posits that South Korea is at present tilting increasingly toward China at the expense of its relations with the United States and will eventually align itself with China.1 Such concerns originated with President Park Geun-hye's successful state visit to China in June 2013, during which Seoul-Beijing ties were further cemented by a pledge to consolidate the "strategic cooperative partnership" established in 2008.2 Granted that it was fairly common to hear that ROK-China relations have never been better (particularly compared with the five years under Lee Myung-bak), such concerns on the part of the United States and Japan are understandable, though largely blown out of proportion.

A year after Park's visit, President Xi Jinping reciprocated with his first state visit to South Korea in early July 2014. It was the first time that the Chinese president visited South Korea before he did the North. More importantly, President Xi's itinerary included only one country-South Korea-as if he had specific goals and motives in mind for the visit. Naturally, the overall atmosphere was cordial, protocols were maximally accorded, schedules were planned to the minute, and hopes and expectations soared high. However, some reporting on the visit was exaggerated and assessments were inflated by the news media's eagerness to mete out positive results even before the two sides had announced their formal agreements.

This article is an empirical rebuttal to the mostly anecdotal and largely impressionistic views in some corners of the United States and Japan that South Korea is already in the Chinese orbit. The article is organized as follows:

* pp. 126-29 offer an assessment of the Xi visit in July 2014 as a key indicator of South Korea's policies toward China.

* pp. 130-43 examine South Koreans' perceptions of China in seven issue domains, arguing that these are not quite congruent with the thesis that Seoul is in China's orbit.

* pp. 143-45 look into the more recent case of President Park's attendance of China's Victory Day celebration in September 2015 and provide some informed predictions about South Korea's future relations with China.


Twenty-three years after the normalization of diplomatic ties, ROK-China relations have entered into a period of maturation. With a history of ebbs and flows,3 bilateral ties were particularly bumpy during 2008-12 due not only to the Lee Myung-bak administration's largely pro-U.S. approach but also to Beijing's defense of North Korea's sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. When the Xi and Park administrations were inaugurated in 2012 and 2013, respectively, an improvement in the bilateral relationship was highly anticipated.

Four factors have played a role in facilitating better relations between Seoul and Beijing since 2013. First, as if to accommodate such high expectations, the Xi administration has put much effort into wooing Seoul, often at the expense of Pyongyang.4 Second, the Park government found that it was rather difficult to distinguish itself from the previous administration in the relationship with the United States and regarded improving relations with China as a diplomatic blue ocean. …

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