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A new China policy for Republic of Korea

By Sukjoon Yoon | China Daily | Updated: 2013-02-20 07:15

President-elect Park Geun Hye will need to come up with a new approach toward the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and toward China. Lee Myung-bak's hard-line policy has run its course, and the new administration must reengage with the DPRK as part of a broader strategic dtente with China, whilst remaining close to the United States.

The policy of the Republic of Korea toward China during the Lee presidency has been constrained by the strategy toward the DPRK, in which the US and the ROK played "good cop" and "bad cop" respectively. In this moment of political transition across Northeast Asia, and in the US, a new and cooperative vision is needed: now is the time for trust.

Northeast Asia seems to have had enough of confrontation and friction. Throughout the region, and also in the US, new administrations have recently been chosen. Remarkably, they have all spoken in support of regional peace and cooperation, apparently moving beyond the political confrontations of 2010-2012 which proved so divisive.

The new leaders of Northeast Asia are focusing on new issues, notably on ensuring stability by increased social welfare and health provision, despite the slowdown in their economies. Across the varied political systems, all the new leaders may feel more able to take a moderate approach to sovereignty issues. Initially they may face opposition from more conservative forces, however, as the current maritime territorial disputes have become more volatile and violent the new leaders have sought to restrain internal tensions and monolithic nationalism from escalating into physical confrontation. These new administrations prefer negotiations to conflicts, and seem likely to eschew the tactics which produced the existing friction and mistrust. Surprisingly, even the young DPRK leader, Kim Jung-un, recently made an extraordinary appeal for improved relations. There seems to be a new spirit arising, throughout the Northeast Asian region, of "live and let live".

Whether or not Park agrees with this analysis, her new government will face several serious strategic quandaries: it is increasingly vital to reengage the DPRK; somehow the disturbing rise of China must be moderated; and the unwelcome decline of US power and influence must be accommodated. These complexities mandate a more engaged foreign policy approach for Park.

During Park's campaign, two issues rose to the fore: social warfare and the DPRK. Her policies on the former drew the support of the middle class, and on the latter gained the votes of traditional conservative groups - she proposed a "confidence-building process in the Korean Peninsula". She wants to move on from the difficult times of the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeoung island bombardment, and to reallocate government spending from defense to social security. Lee's hard-line approach to the DPRK has lost its appeal, and the new president, despite her right-wing heritage and support, is proposing a trust-oriented strategy toward the DPRK that is closer to the "Sunshine Policy" promoted by former left-of-center governments.

The original "Sunshine Policy" was the brainchild of Nobel Peace Laureate Kim Dae-jung; and Lee was elected as a vigorous opponent of this approach toward the DPRK, which had disgruntled China. Throughout Lee's administration Beijing was reluctant to coordinate with Seoul on the DPRK issues like nuclear weapons development and the testing of long-range rocketry. The only crumb that Beijing allowed was a change in the relationship with Seoul, from "strategic partnership" to "strategic cooperative partnership"; and many analysts are now wondering who is supposed to be responsible for the "cooperative" aspect.

Park is the first woman president of any country with a Confucian ethos, and the first South Korean president fluent in Chinese. These factors may help her relate to Chinese top political and military leader Xi Jinping. Park apparently understands that her administration needs to do something to produce more cooperative outcomes, and the ROK's 2013 budget, published late last year, increases the funds for projects related to the DPRK, as promised during her campaign.

More broadly: the Park administration must strike a balance between the rise of China and the US decline, which will require excellent strategic sensitivity. But the ROK's relations with the US and China need not be a zero-sum game: the relaxation of ideological constraints should lead to a general improvement in Sino-ROK interactions, which will also allow a fine tuning of the US-ROK security alliance. The ROK, as a middle power, should be neutral over the rivalry between the US and China; and the most effective route to strategic autonomy for the ROK may be to formulate a "trilateral cooperation mechanism" between China, the ROK and the US: such a creative approach to the complex problems of regional security would create gains for all parties, not least for the ROK itself. The ROK's new China policy can contribute to defusing the DPRK issue in a manner acceptable to both China and the US.

First, the incoming Park administration should possess a sophisticated understanding to develop a fresh approach to China, trying to identify a constructive space between the disturbing rise of China and the uncertain but waning US influence in the region. By "sophisticated understanding" is meant a readiness to seize the opportunity for a foreign policy breakthrough, representing a real thaw in relations. Thus, the ROK now calls China an "indispensable catalyst", and sees its relationship with China as the cornerstone of burgeoning and mutually beneficial economic interactions, based on geographic proximity; and Park has indicated her urgent diplomatic focus upon China.

Second, it would be very helpful if a China-ROK "Senior Dialogue for Strategic Communication" could be established, (like that between China and the US). Major issues could be discussed in such a Senior Dialogue: the interaction between chronic threats like the standoff between the two Koreas, and acute issues like the delimitation of overlaps between their Exclusive Economic Zones; fishing disputes, and judicial proceedings; procedures for the proposed ROK-China Free Trade Agreement; and the structural transformation of bilateral trade. The two countries could also work jointly to project a new vision of strategic opportunity: demonstrating how the two countries can work together in the twenty-first century.

The true significance of all these frictions, complexities and interactions between China and the ROK can be expressed by a single word: trust. Both sides need to work harder at building a deeper bond of trust, and any further enhancement of relations between China and the ROK needs an advance in the level of trust between them. So all roads lead to trust-building, it seems, and yet much uncertainty remains , who wants to put all their eggs in one basket?

The author is senior research fellow of the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy and visiting professor of Sejong University, Seoul, the ROK.

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