South Korea’s Faustian Dilemma: China-ROK Economic and Diplomatic Ties (Part II)

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.

Public Outlook

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.

SK favorability toward China and US

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).

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