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The Peninsula

South Korea: Middle Power but not a Mediator between the U.S. and China

Published December 27, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

As countries in Asia emerge from this year of elections and transitions, the role and rise of China in the region will remain a top priority. For most of these countries, significant emphasis has been placed on the importance of positive U.S.-China relations in the region. This is especially true for South Korea. And in that need for better U.S.-China relations, there is an idea that a country can mediate the tensions between the two largest players in the region. There are suggestions that South Korea, as an ally of the U.S. and a strategic partner to China, can play this mediator role. However, South Korea inserting itself into U.S.-China bilateral issues would not bring about the positive relations it seeks, and it would limit South Korea’s own options and strategic interests it has worked so hard to develop.

First, South Korea is not seen by China as unbiased. An alliance trumps a strategic partnership. China does not view its relationship with South Korea as on the same level as South Korea’s relationship with the United States. Related to this is a belief that removing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula would likely be one of the first requests from Chinese leaders after unification. South Korea can try to be a mediator if it wants, but it will eat up significant resources and be forced to remain engaged in the process instead of working on other issues more impactful toward its own interests. This is especially true if the process is long or if South Korea is unable to bring the two sides together. Additionally, if China doesn’t view South Korea as a fair mediator, then South Korea’s actions will be put toward a policy that will inevitably fail because China will not use South Korea to help create better ties with the U.S.

Second, talk of a mediator role for South Korea could also bring to mind the difficult times of the South Korea-U.S. relationship during the Roh Moo-hyun era. The dynamics between the two countries led to a perception where South Korean officials thought their country needed a more equal balance between the U.S. and China, and thus start to move away from cooperation opportunities with the United States. Although different circumstances now surround the relationship, a move in this direction is one of the few concerns in the U.S. about the aftermath of the South Korean elections. Aspects of this sentiment can be found in the young generation in Korea, meaning these feelings will be something U.S. officials will have to deal with for a long time.

Third, South Korea can’t be more assertive in its own foreign policy if it is trying to be a mediator. In the book Korea at the Center, it is suggested that throughout history, Korea has only been free to pursue its own interests when there is no hegemonic power in the region. Thus, it is understandable for Korea to desire that a hegemonic order not develop in the region. Korea wants to preserve space to act; however, becoming a mediator in U.S.-China relations might actually constrain the space for Korea. Part of South Korea’s freedom to maneuver is embedded in its own growth. South Korea’s development has allowed it to be more active internationally in a wide variety of issues. Korea has more to gain at the international level as a middle power than it does as a mediator for U.S.-China tensions.

Lastly, suggesting that Korea be a mediator between the U.S. and China can conjure up the idea that the U.S. is in decline and countries that are friends and allies of the U.S. need to help manage its decline. Look at Australia, another country that has an alliance with the United States and whose top trading partner is China. Hugh White, one of the main people responsible for Australia’s 2000 defense white paper, suggested a similar type of role for Australia. He said Australia should “persuade America that it would be in everyone’s best interest for it to relinquish primacy in Asia, but remain engaged as a member of collective leadership.”

While South Korea rightly has to evaluate the future of Asia and determine its own interests and goals, the U.S. needs to convince its ally that the U.S. can maintain its primacy in Asia and that the alliance can provide the security and collaboration that will benefit South Korea in the Asia-Pacific Century. This is why joint vision statements for the alliance that indicate pathways for the alliance beyond North Korean issues are vital. The U.S. wants Korea and the alliance to be more involved in other issues not because the U.S. is declining but because it is the best way to shape and create a strong and more secure Asia for everyone. The U.S. government has welcomed Korea’s impact globally, especially seen in hosting the G-20 and Nuclear Security Summit.

Uncertainty over America’s role in Asia is also why the relationship must go beyond alliance management tactics by the U.S. constantly demonstrating the value of the alliance, the staying power of the U.S. in Asia, and the importance of a strong U.S. presence in Asia, regardless of whether the current U.S.-China relationship is good or bad.

Part of the difficulty with these types of discussions is the misunderstanding of the ideas of shaping versus mediating. Shaping means creating norms, values, institutions, and processes that provide countries a positive, safe environment for interaction, collaboration, and peace. Mediating is often a country inserting itself into a broken or stalemated process between two countries and developing norms, processes, or an actual agreement for the two sides to use for their future relationship. The U.S. and other countries and international institutions around the world are trying to shape China’s rise. Both history and current interactions indicate that having a rising power develop without conflict is important and necessary for regional and global development and stability.

The U.S.-South Korea alliance can be used to help shape China’s rise as well as remind the U.S. of the importance of good Sino-U.S. relations for South Korea. South Korea itself can help shape China’s rise by undertaking projects abroad that demonstrate proper development assistance in places like Africa and Southeast Asia. South Korea’s developmental history and assistance can illustrate how host countries can sustain development and improve the lives of their own people rather than having resources exploited by an outside partner. However, it doesn’t seem to be in South Korea’s interest to mediate the overall relations between the United States and China. There are too many other factors that would draw Korea away from focusing on its own plans for the future development in Asia and South Korea’s role in the world.

South Korea is better positioned for shaping the environment surrounding U.S.-China relations rather than inserting itself into the always changing dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship. Moreover, South Korea’s interests of economic growth dependent on trade, seeing the Korean development model and values implemented abroad, and creating a secure environment through an alliance, partnerships, international law, and diplomacy to deal with North Korean provocations and possible unification can all be achieved even if U.S.-China relations are poor.

In an Asia-Pacific Century with uncertainty still surrounding the future paths of China and the U.S., combined with the fear that the paths could very possibly intersect in violence, it is understandable for other countries in the region to look for ways to create good U.S.-China relations. The mediator idea is there, but South Korea gains more as a middle power. Shaping the environment around U.S.-China relations fits better with South Korea’s goals and capabilities.  South Korea needs good U.S.-China relations; however, attempting to mediate between the two countries, and sacrificing its own interests and damaging relations with its U.S. ally in the process, will prevent South Korea from fully benefiting from the good Sino-U.S. relations it seeks.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own. He would also like to thank Matt Tranquada and Troy Stangarone for their discussions on these issues. 

Photo from U.S. Mission Geneva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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