China's Ties With South Korea: A Snake Wrapped Around a Rabbit?

07/14/2014 04:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 13, 2014
Chung Sung-Jun via Getty Images

SEOUL -- Remarks made by Chinese President Xi Jinping on a recent visit here clearly showed why he came to South Korea before visiting the North. As many experts have pointed out, Xi wants to pull South Korea away from the trilateral security regime of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington amid a contest of strength among China, the United States and Japan. His latest visit to Seoul and his charm offensive during his stay are aimed at both Japan, which is exhibiting early signs of desiring to become a military superpower, and the United States, which stands behind Tokyo's rearming.

Washington's endorsement of Tokyo's decision to exercise its right of "collective self-defense" despite Seoul and Beijing's concerns also plays into Xi's move to engage South Korea.

Immediately after taking office in November 2012, Xi announced a significant statement on the so-called "China Dream" when he visited the National Museum's Road to Revival exhibition with six members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China.

"In my view, realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the Chinese nation's greatest dream in modern history," Xi said. "The China Dream has encapsulated the long-cherished aspiration of Chinese people of several generations, represented the overall interests of the Chinese nation and Chinese people, and has been a common expectation of every Chinese."

The exhibition showed the trajectory of China's rise from the hardships and disgrace of the Opium War in 1840 to the rejuvenation of the country. The context of the so-called China Dream can be summarized as regaining the Qing Dynasty's territory.

During his speech at Seoul National University, Xi talked about the China Dream. By mentioning several cases of solidarity between China and Korea -- Silla prince turned Buddhist monk Kim Gyo-gak, who practiced asceticism and passed away on China's Mount Jiuhua; Choe Chi-won, who rose to a high post in the Tang Dynasty; the Ming Dynasty's support of Joseon during Japan's invasion in 1592; and Baekbeom Kim Gu's independence movement against Japan in China -- Xi tried to persuade Koreans to join his China Dream. And yet, it was notable that Xi failed to mention examples of China and South Korea being at odds with each other, such as the second Manchu invasion of Korea and China's intervention in the Korean War, which prevented Korea's reunification.


Stopping the China Dream is the intent of the U.S.'s so-called pivot to Asia. Despite repeated denials and explanations by Washington, China considers the Obama administration's policy as a strategy to contain China pure and simple. Right after Xi visited Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an ally of the United States, visited Australia and New Zealand and supported Washington by figuratively completing the U.S.-led encirclement of China.

Whenever he has a chance, Xi stresses that the Pacific is large enough for two superpowers, basically declaring his intention to split the region between East and West and maintain China's control over the western Pacific. At the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in Shanghai in May, Xi also argued that Asia's security must be defended by Asians.

Ironically, the argument shares the idea behind the Nixon Doctrine, the exit strategy of U.S. President Richard Nixon from the Vietnam War in 1969. The doctrine set forth that U.S. allies in Asia should be in charge of their own security.

Those who are wary of the honeymoon between Korea and China say that the current bilateral relationship is like a big snake wrapped around a rabbit. It is an awful comparison. But if we are overly carried away by the closest relationship with China since Korea tied a diplomatic knot with the superpower in 1992 and fall into Xi's dream of regaining the glory of the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty -- who controlled Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mongolia and other islands of the East and South China Seas -- then inter-Korean relations, Korea-U.S. ties and Korea-Japan relations will cross a bridge of no return.

Following Xi's visit to Korea, economic cooperation as well as civilian and student exchanges are expected to expand. We must be cautious about buying into Xi's China Dream, but at the same time treat the development of practical relations separately from the power game in Northeast Asia with a value-neutral, pragmatic perspective.

Needless to say, improving inter-Korean ties, restoring Korea-Japan relations and maintaining our security cooperation with the United States are as important as Korea-China relations. China is trying to please Korea only because of the United States and Japan.

When inter-Korean ties improve to a certain level, the two Koreas' stance toward China will be reinforced and the North's dependence on China will also be reduced. Depending on what we do, the fluid nature of Northeast Asian security is the best chance for Korea.


If China has a dream of a great renewal, Abe's Japan also has a dream of becoming East Asia's leader with a military that can wage war. Within the U.S.-China confrontation, China's dream and Japan's dream collide at the East and South China Seas. Preventing a collision on the Korean Peninsula is the difficult yet urgent task of Korea's diplomacy. The proposal of Xi for an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank must not be accepted because it came from China, or rejected because the United States protests it. A decision that best serves Korea's national interest must be made.

Korea must not be part of the U.S. ambition to contain China nor be seduced by Xi's sugarcoated China Dream. A strategic view that includes the larger picture of Northeast Asia is what we need.