Deciphering China’s Security Intentions in Northeast Asia: A View from South Korea

 

The most noticeable shift of diplomacy and security strategy in Xi Jinping’s government is the evolution of peripheral diplomacy. China’s East Asia strategy is especially evolving in response to Washington’s “rebalance to Asia” and Japan’s “normalization,” focusing on weakening any checks on its rise by the U.S.-led alliance through an active diplomatic offensive in East Asia. In this context, China’s East Asia diplomacy and security strategy still has the characteristics of counteracting the United States. Nonetheless, the reason China’s response is regarded as aggressive is that its actions go beyond a reactive attitude to keep its core interests intact and are evolving into advancing new institutions and norms that can challenge the existing U.S.- led ones. Many signs show that the Xi government is seeking a way to shift from being a rule taker in the international order to a rule maker. China’s leadership is aiming at the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP); pushing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); asserting that “the security of Asia should be upheld by Asians” at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA); and leading the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

In this context, South Korea is witnessing an intensified debate on China’s emerging strategic intentions. The South Korean government, media, and expert groups have shown a lot of interest in whether China’s more active diplomacy reflects both the will and capability to create a new international order and systematically pursue it at the level of grand strategy. Discussions on the rise of China focus on the new strategic reality that South Korea faces due to its unique characteristics, rather than on the essential issues of China’s intentions and capabilities. As the competition over institutions and norms in Asia between the United States and China hit its stride, many discussions have centered on South Korea’s dilemma, as it seeks to keep its ally close and steer China away from North Korea.1 Such discussions cover the expansion of a rising China’s role, how its influence in Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula affect the North Korean nuclear issue and reunification of the peninsula, and South Korea–China relations. Naturally, the North Korean issue, newly exacerbated by its early 2016 nuclear and long-range missile tests, figures heavily in the way South Koreans visualize what China has in mind for their country.

This paper examines such discussions in South Korea at the level of both the perceptions and policies of the government and the perceptions and responses of the non-government sector (media, academia, and the public). Through this process, the characteristics of and the problems in South Korea–China relations will be investigated by deducing the differences in opinions on South Korean policies to China and South Korea–China relations.

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