Author: Moon Chung-in, Yonsei University, Seoul
There is flashing red light in Korea’s China diplomacy. Turning a blind eye toward us, China adopted a neutral stance in the Ch’ŏnan incident, and in the case of the Yŏnp’yŏng Island incident, China even gave the impression it was taking North Korea’s side by its use of terms such as ‘cross-fire’ to refer to the shelling.
On North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, China has taken an essentially passive stance by not only stressing the importance of ‘verifying the facts’ in reference to the reported enrichment facility, but also recognizing North Korea’s right to peaceful use of atomic energy. The visit to Seoul by State Councilor Dai Bingguo on which great hopes had been pinned came to an end without producing fruit. South Korea-China relations actually became more strained after his visit to Seoul. Dai once again called for a reconvening of the Six Party Talks, and strongly urged both the North and the South to exercise restraint, without making any mention whatsoever of the Yŏnp’yŏng Island shelling incident.
How have South Korea-China relation deteriorated to this state after having been upgraded through great effort to the level of a ‘strategic partnership’ as they were characterized in the declaration issued following the South Korea-China summit meeting in May 2008? Before we place the blame on China’s diplomatic behaviour, we need to engage in a meticulous self examination of Korea’s China diplomacy.
Aren’t perhaps the shortcomings of Korea’s China diplomacy the result of the bad move we’ve made in the game of diplomacy of underestimating China? Lacking a cool-headed understanding and analysis of ‘rising China’ we now are seeing that problems are arising as we approach China simply from the perspective of the situation in the 1990s when diplomatic relations between South Korea and China were opened up. Whether it is the nuclear issue or something else, we believe China can be convinced to follow our lead provided we are sufficiently persuasive. Is there any reason to expect China to have warm and fuzzy feelings toward the South Korean government when it is taking a position that implies there is no need for the Six Party Talks, in direct opposition to China’s assessment of the talks as the core diplomatic legacy of Chinese President Hu Jintao, or by putting forth proposals such as ‘Denuclearization Opening 3,000’ and ‘Grand Bargain’ in an effort to claim for itself the leading role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue? In light of the longstanding, close ties between China and North Korea, there certainly is no reason for China to look favourably on South Korea when it is proposing a three-party strategic dialogue (South Korea-U.S.-China) on ways to deal with a contingency in North Korea.
What is the background for disconnects of this kind? It is quite clear that the problem is the excessive expectations the South Korean government has of the United States. Due to a belief that the U.S. is the only country uniquely able to control or influence China, it is thought that South Korea will be able to resolve its problems with China automatically and simply by strengthening its alliance with the United States. In the end, it is a valid assessment to say that the cause of the failure of South Korea’s China diplomacy is the Lee Myung-bak administration’s deeply rooted perception of the U.S. as a ‘panacea’ for South Korean diplomacy.
Although jumping on the bandwagon with the U.S. is a position that is beyond reproach when viewed purely from the perspective of the traditional alliance relationship, it is apparent that there also is a problem with this way of thinking. In the course of promoting a strategic alliance with the U.S., the Lee Myung-bak administration has placed great emphasis on the shared values of a market economy and liberal democracy. This emphasis seems entirely natural from our point of view. From the perspective of China, however, these moves by South Korea are interpreted to mean that South Korea is playing an active role in the efforts of the U.S. to enlarge its sphere of influence as a way of containing or encircling China. It is difficult for China to countenance behavior that looks as though it is intended to bring pressure to bear on China by building an alliance based on values that have no regard for the combination of democracy and socialism that is a distinctive feature of contemporary China.
Another problem is the self-centered approach taken in South Korea’s China diplomacy. These days, isn’t China a great power? It is necessary to take China’s perspective into consideration and to understand the country in a manner appropriate to its status as a great power. As an alliance partner of North Korea, for China it is very difficult to take South Korea’s side on the Ch’ŏnan incident while North Korea is strongly disavowing any role in the vessel’s sinking. Just as it was natural for the U.S. to take South Korea’s side, China tilted toward North Korea’s side. In the case of the Yŏnp’yŏng Island incident as well, the context of China’s reaction has to be understood.
Given the circumstances at the time of the shelling incident, it certainly would not be warranted to give China low marks as a country in terms of rejecting international norms. After all, it was China that took the position of calling on both North Korea and South Korea to exercise mutual restraint while also urging them to seek a resolution of their issues through dialogue. As for putting national interest ahead of international norms, in reality, moralistically competing with China in terms of accountability, reputation, credibility, and the like rather than being helpful would have a negative effect on South Korea-China relations.
Why do these kinds of problems arise? Above all, the core of the problem is the lack of professional expertise on China. Take the lineup of the Lee Myung-bak administration in the diplomatic and national security areas. For the most part, U.S. and Japan experts have a monopoly on positions and dominate these affairs as well as in the top posts in the executive branch and the National Intelligence Service. For them, it is easy to view issues from the American and Japanese perspectives not the perspective of China. The more serious problem is that the point of view taken by the core officials in the current administration is that there is no need for China experts. It seems they think it is better not to have China experts because of their client-grounded attitude that would advocate the Chinese perspective rather than the South Korea’s.
Just as fatal as this lack of expertise are the flaws in the construction of the network of human resources. What’s known as ‘connection (guanxi)’ is a critical asset for improving relations with China. However, the current administration has completely eliminated all the key personnel dealing with China that were part of a network of experts that past governments had gradually assembled over a period of years. China relations are being spearheaded these days by conservative officials that are focused on protecting the points of view of the current administration. The way things are going, never mind building ‘connections’ and promoting constructive dialogue, you just have to hope that there are no heated debates with Chinese counterparts, and that meetings are being held to hear mutual differences rather than to enhance mutual understandings and improving relations.
President Lee’s misperceptions and lack of knowledge also are a serious matter. While I was residing in China over a six month period last year, I witnessed a sharp cooling of South Korea-China relations. Up until the moment the Ch’ŏnan incident, the majority of government officials took the position that there was nothing unusual about the state of South Korea-China relations. President Lee Myung-bak also took the position in a statement that there were a few problems in the private sector but there were no problems on the government-to-government level. But was that so? Looking back from the present, there seems to be one of two possibilities: either the president was deceived by receiving incorrect advice or the President misrepresented the facts even though he had received an accurate advice from his subordinates.
We have to change our way of thinking. Our future is with China. We have to have good relations with China. To do that we need to develop a more balanced practical diplomacy. A triangular alliance that is ‘anti-China’ made up of South Korea, Japan and the U.S. cannot be the alternative. Relations between the U.S. and China as well as relations between Japan and China must be good to ensure the peace, stability and prosperity of the Korean peninsula. In particular, it is necessary to put emphasis on the improvement of North-South relations. After all, ultimately, isn’t the North Korean problem the major reason for the deterioration of South Korea-China relations?
Going forward, the government has to take a forward-leaning stance on the resumption of the Six Party Talks. North Korea’s acquisition of a uranium enrichment facility proves that the sanctions that have been in place are not effective. We need to acknowledge that there is no military option. We have to engage in dialogue. If bilateral talks are difficult then we have to make every effort to return to the suspended Six Party Talks. This is the best choice available for South Korea-China relations.
Dr Moon Moon Chung-in, Professor of Political Science at Yonsei University and former adviser on North Korean affairs to President Kim Dae-Jung.
An earlier version of this essay was posted here, on Nautilus.
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ASEAN weathering the COVID-19 typhoon
Author: Sandra Seno-Alday, Sydney University
The roughly 20 typhoons that hit Southeast Asia each year pale in comparison to the impact on the region of COVID-19 — a storm of a very different sort striking not just Southeast Asia but the world.
Just how badly is the COVID-19 typhoon thrashing the region? And what might the post-crisis recovery and reconstruction look like? To answer these questions, it is necessary to investigate the strengths and vulnerabilities of Southeast Asia’s pre-COVID-19 economic infrastructure.
Understanding the structure of the region’s economic house requires going back to 1967, when Southeast Asian countries decided to pledge friendship to one another under the ASEAN framework. While other integrated regions such as NAFTA and the European Union have aggressively broken down trade barriers and significantly boosted intra-regional trade, ASEAN regional economic integration has chugged along slower.
Southeast Asian countries have not viewed trade between each other as a top priority. The trade agreements in the region have been forged around suggestions for ASEAN countries to lower tariffs on intra-regional trade to within a certain range and across limited industries. This has lowered but not eliminated barriers to intra-regional trade. Consequently, a relatively significant share of Southeast Asian trade is with countries outside the region. This active extra-regional engagement has resulted in ASEAN countries’ successful integration into global value chain networks.
A historically outward-facing region, in 2010 around 75 per cent of Southeast Asian commodity imports and exports came from countries outside of ASEAN. This share of extra-regional trade nudged closer to 80 per cent in 2018. This indicates that ASEAN’s global value chain network embeddedness has deepened over time.
Around 40 per cent of ASEAN’s extra-regional trade is with the rest of Asia. From 2010 to 2018 Southeast Asian countries forged major trade relationships with four Asian countries: China, Japan, South Korea and India. Outside Asia, the United States is the region’s major trading partner. ASEAN’s trade focus on Asia’s largest markets is not surprising. Countries tend to establish trade relationships with large, geographically close, and culturally similar markets.
Fostering deep relationships with a few large markets, however, is a double-edged sword. While it has allowed ASEAN to benefit from integration in global value chains, it has also resulted in increased vulnerability to the shocks affecting its network connections.
ASEAN’s participation in global value chains has allowed it to transition from a net regional importer in 1990 to a net regional exporter in 2018. But the region’s deep embeddedness in a small and tightly-coupled network cluster of extra-regional global value chain partners has exposed it to disruption to any and all of its external partners. By contrast, ASEAN’s intra-regional trade network structure is much more loosely-coupled: a consequence of persistent intra-regional trade barriers and thus lower intra-regional trade intensity.
In the pre-COVID-19 period, ASEAN built for itself an economic house held up by just five extra-regional markets, while doing less to expand and diversify its intra-regional trade network. The data shows that ASEAN trade became increasingly concentrated in these few external markets between 2010 and 2018.
This dependence on a handful of markets does not bode well for risk and crisis management. All of the region’s major trading partners have been significantly affected by COVID-19 and this in turn is blowing the ASEAN economic house down.
What are the ways forward? The immediate task at hand is to get a better picture of the region’s position in global value chain networks and to get on top of managing its network risk exposure. Already there are red flags around the region’s food security arising from its position in food value chains. It is critical to look for ways to introduce flexibility into existing supply chains for greater agility in responding to crises.
It is also an opportune time for ASEAN to harness the technology transfer gains of global value chain participation and invest in innovation-driven diversification of products and markets. The region’s embeddedness in global value chain networks certainly places it in a strong position to readily access large export markets not just in Asia but also Europe and the Americas.
Over the longer term, ASEAN is faced with the question of whether it should seriously look…
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