Yesterday, we tracked the blooming of economic relations between South Korea and China over the last decade. Today we come to a less-quantifiable and downright murky question: will public sentiment and diplomatic relations follow suit?
In this respect, Korea has entered into something of a Faustian Dilemma: on one hand, it is very difficult to resist the economic opportunities presented by China’s development, and some argue that South Korea actually has the current advantage in dictating regional policy and trade terms. But as we look to the future, it is difficult to assuage the concern that Korea’s growing economic dependence as well as its military power differential with China will begin to dominate future national policy decisions.
This apprehension regarding the future of South Korea’s relationship with their powerful neighbor is evident in public opinion. According to Pew’s Global Attitudes project, which dedicates an entire section to gauging cross-country sentiment towards China, South Korean sentiment appears guardedly agnostic in certain broad respects: just under half of South Koreans view China positively (Exhibit 1) and a majority see the country as neither a partner nor an enemy. However, other areas elicit strongly negative responses, particularly towards China’s military rise and its perceived non-consideration of South Korea’s interests.
South Korea’s sentiments towards China are profoundly complex, and we do not pretend to be able to capture such subtleties through public opinion polls. Still, we would like to advance two major sources for this apprehension.
First, a primary concern over China’s growing commercial ties is the requisite increase in its economic leverage over Korea. Using the late Robert Dahl’s framework of power in economic terms, it implies that one country has consolidated enough influence in another country’s economic affairs that it allows them (unilaterally, or via coercion of third party countries) to make that country do something that they would otherwise not do. For example, while Malawi could exercise its economic power over Korea by blocking its non-trivial exports of tobacco, that would unlikely affect change in Korean policy because tobacco is a relatively small import and is widely available elsewhere (including in Korea). However, if China were to block all electronics-related exports to the ROK it could certainly affect a change of some kind in Korean policy. Economic leverage may also generate popular malcontent – the likes of which are being currently witnessed in Taiwan where student-led activists are demanding more say in a recent decision to deepen trade ties with the Mainland. Using Taipei’s perceived political inability to pass more liberal cross-strait economic policy, South Korea appears to be well-positioned to take advantage of the unrest to attract business away from their chief Taiwanese competitors. However, policymakers in South Korea should also take care to note the dynamics of a regional actor that has reached a painful inflection point in its relationship with China, and set their strategy accordingly.
The second major barrier to warming ties is couched in regional security relationships and, particularly, the North Korea problem. In terms of general country favorability, Pew shows a major gap between China and the United States, Korea’s longtime ally (Exhibit 1). More importantly, a recent TNS Korea poll suggests that this favorability would overwhelmingly extend to siding with the United States in the case of hypothetical crisis between the US and China (Exhibit 2).
A very visible reason for distrust of China on the military and geopolitical front is its perceived nearly unconditional support of North Korea. South Koreans overwhelmingly feel that, in the case of North-South conflict, China’s interests lie with the DPRK (Exhibit 2). As long as South Koreans perceive that China shields the Kim regime from international sanctions and demands to address gross human rights abuses, and does not put its full weight into achieving denuclearization, the issue will remain a significant wedge in China-ROK relations.
Realpolitik, China style
All caveats considered, a continued expansion of China-ROK ties – both economic and diplomatic – is a good bet in the short term: The Asan Institute reports general favorability for current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and a February 2014 poll by TNS Korea shows that public assessments of Korea-China relations, have markedly improved in the first year of Park Gyeun Hye’s presidency.
And perhaps more significant moves regarding North Korea are yet to come. China’s growing pique with the DPRK is no secret. Last year, Deng Yuwen of the CCP’s Central Party School made waves in stating that China should abandon North Korea. He subsequently walked that back and reportedly regained his standing professionally, but it was a remarkable insight into how China’s strategic view of the world may have, or indeed should have, changed. From a realist point-of-view, as an emerging power with good prospects (unlike Russia), China has been largely conciliatory with respect to the status quo. It can afford to be. However, as its commercial interests stretch further from the safety of the Mainland, so too will their security interests, and the costs of a status quo North Korea start to outweigh the broader benefits.
In an eventuality where China does fully commit to a change of status quo in the region, it is naïve to think the ROK would then throw its misgivings to the wind and rush to China’s embrace. Indeed, this would bring about a new round of painful decisions for South Korea, namely those regarding the future of its security relationship with the United States. But until that time comes, if China remains open, accommodating, and just benign enough in its regional territorial disputes not to scare its partner away, South Korea may one day realize it has already, and quite unwittingly, crossed over the event horizon of China’s pull.