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The Peninsula

Korea and the Seesaw between U.S. and China’s Asia Policies

Published December 13, 2012
Author: Sarah Yun
Category: South Korea

By Sarah K. Yun

Both the United States and China went through leadership transitions in November. In the United States  President Barack Obama was reelected, while China announced a new era under General Secretary Xi Jiping.  With both countries future leadership now decided, what are the implications for Korea as the U.S. and China consolidate their respective leaderships and policy towards Asia?

The key takeaway from the U.S. election is that the United States will continue its strategy of rebalancing toward Asia.  This is less surprising given the re-elected Obama administration’s commitment to continue the rebalancing towards Asia.  Beginning in the fall of 2011, the Obama administration indicated the United States’ determination to play a larger role in the Asia-Pacific region militarily, economically, and politically.  In line with this position the U.S. renewed its commitment towards allies such as South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, and strengthened relationships with other partners such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and India.

Militarily, the U.S. cooperated with South Korea and Japan on missile defense technologies, while announcing new deployments or rotations of troops in Australia and Singapore.  At the same time, the U.S. continues to work to strengthen its commitment to South Korea and Japan, encourage Australia to take more active role in regional security, and renew security ties with the Philippines, while laying the foundations to solidify strategic relationship with Vietnam and India.

Economically, the U.S. recognizes that the fastest growing economies of the world are in the Asia-Pacific region. Consequently, the U.S. concluded the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement while actively participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement negotiations.  Furthermore, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have in unprecedented fashion attended consecutive regional forums including APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the EAS.

Recognizing that diplomacy requires more than agreements and public pronouncements, the rebalancing also implies the crucial need for trust-building in the region. To that end, President Obama’s first trip abroad after his reelection was to Southeast Asia to meet ASEAN leaders on November 18. His trip is a recognition that the center of gravity for U.S. foreign policy has shifted to the Asia-Pacific region.  Overall, the U.S. has been actively and comprehensively engaged in the region on a variety of issues both bilaterally and multilaterally.

While the United States pursues its policy of rebalancing, any policy change from China towards the region remains to be seen.  The Asia-Pacific is undoubtedly important to China as the country sees itself as the leader of the region to which they belong and centers its own policy around the need for a peaceful region to facilitate China’s own continued development.

China’s policy towards Asia is not as defined as the U.S. rebalancing strategy, leading neighbors to wonder what its intentions are. Many are concerned at China’s recent assertive posture related to maritime and territorial issues. However, the reality is that an assessment of China’s foreign policy under Xi may be too early at this point.  Although Xi became the General Secretary of the Community Party of China, he will not become president until the National People’s Congress in March 2013.  Furthermore, key foreign affairs officials have not been appointed yet, such as the director of Central Foreign Affairs Office, foreign minister, and the head of the CCP’s International Liaison Department. The best indication of Xi’s foreign policy may be Hu Jintao’s opening report at the 18th CPC National Congress where Xi was appointed the successor. It was declared that China was to become a maritime power to exploit marine resources, develop its marine economy, protect marine ecological environment, and resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests.  For the most part, however, the emphasis was on domestic politics, perhaps indicating that foreign policy will be largely reactive in the initial years under Xi.

In the backdrop of Xi Jinping’s leadership transition is China’s recent aggressive stance on maritime issues against Japan and Southeast Asia.  Recently, an Op-Ed in the state-run People’s Daily, stated that “China’s stance of maintaining peaceful development does not mean it gives up its right to protect national interests” and that China will “protect national sovereignty, safety and developmental interest and will never surrender to any external pressure”. The territorial dispute with Japan will likely be one of Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy priorities in 2013 in order to prevent any domestic dissatisfaction and instability. At the same time, China’s policy stance towards North Korea has remained largely consistent as it has urged all relevant parties to take a “prudent and moderate” response to North Korea’s missile launch.

On the economic front, China remains invested in international trade and economic development as its domestic economy depends on the global market. On September 22 during the China-ASEAN Expo, Xi pledged to advance China-ASEAN relations and FTA development, showing China’s emphasis on economic tools for diplomacy in the region despite intense maritime disputes.  Trade volume between China and ASEAN countries amounted to $362.8 billion in 2011, with a trade volume target of $500 billion by 2013.

All in all, there are signs of both continuity in China’s foreign policy as well as signs of a more assertive China. However, China’s policy also indicates a fragmentation between security and economic interests.  Priority goes to economic development and stability, then regional security.  Even maritime disputes have a strong economic interests regarding shipping lanes.  While China was on the course to develop a comprehensive Asia policy amidst the wars in the Middle East, the U.S. initiated its comprehensive rebalancing towards Asia, which threw a curveball into China’s plans.  China is realizing the need to increasingly get involved in multilateral channels such as the G-20, BRICs, and other Asia related multilateral forums.

As the two major powers navigate in the Asia-Pacific region to establish their respective leadership positions, what is the role that Korea can play?  U.S. policy towards Asia and the Korean Peninsula is more predictable, which eliminates many of the potential surprise elements.  The U.S.-Korea alliance has been coined the lynchpin of regional security, leaving little room for ambiguity in the U.S. rebalancing vis-à-vis Korea.  China, on the other hand, may require more management for Korea.  Although the initial phase of Xi’s foreign policy will likely be dominated by domestic issues such as economic slowdown and anti-corruption, bilateral issues such as Chinese fishermen in Korean waters and Korea-China Free Trade Agreement will need careful navigation.

Korea, like other countries in the region, does not want to be forced to choose between the U.S. and China.  Both the United States and China are important to Korea in different ways and the realities of their respective Asia policies may lead Korea to actively engage diplomatically with both powers.  Therefore, Korea can play a mediating role to support the U.S., Korea’s most important ally, and China, Korea’s largest trading partner, to work together on key issues.  This may include North Korea and Iran’s nuclear problems, disaster relief in region, and assisting China to mature its market capital structures and move towards a knowledge-based economy. Some of the seesaw dynamics between the U.S. and China may change after the South Korean presidential elections in December.  Regardless of who becomes the new South Korean president, the reality is that both the U.S. and China are important partners to Korea.  As a middle power, Korea can play an important and unique role the Asia policies of the U.S. and China.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own. 

Photo from U.S. Pacific Fleet’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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