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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 41 New Delhi October 3, 2015

Park in China: Assessing Middle Power Diplomacy

Saturday 3 October 2015, by Rajaram Panda


South Korea’s ties with China reached a new milestone when President Park Geun-hye attended China’s ceremony and military parade on September 3 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the country’s “victory” in the “War of Resistance Against Japan” and “Anti-Fascist War”. Besides the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin during the function, that raised rumours of a new kind of Sino-Russo axis emerging, President Park’s attendance and China’s neglect of North Korea gave a new twist to the changing geopolitics in Northeast Asia with new power equations developing. This essay makes an attempt to examine how the South Korea-China relations are likely to develop in the coming months and years and what that means to the rest of Asia in the geopolitical and strategic context.

Over the past two years or so Beijing’s relations with North Korea have lost some of its warmth, especially after the assumption of power by Kim Jong-un. Though Beijing is unlikely to abandon Pyongyang because of strategic considerations and keep the North afloat despite international sanctions being in place, Beijing has no hesitation to express its displeasure over many of Kim’s recent actions. The warming of China’s ties with South Korea in consequence to this injects a new dimension to the politics of Northeast Asia. In this context, Park’s participation in Beijing’s function needs in-depth analysis.

Changing Contours of South Korea-China ties

Did Park’s participation in China’s World War II extravaganza, celebrating the ‘victory’ in World War II, endorse China’s legitimacy to power? Opinions could be surely divided but Seoul is not likely to reject such an assertion either as wooing Beijing away from its tilt towards Pyongyang could be seen as a major achievement for the Park administration. There are of course economic considerations that are equally attractive. Thus Park stood apart among the fifty plus world leaders who assembled at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to witness the massive display of China’s lethal military arsenals.

Though Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang were once described as something as close like lips and teeth, this expression has lost a lot of its meaning. Even if Beijing’s influence over the North has somewhat waned, Beijing still holds considerable clout in Pyongyang. President Park knows this well and therefore thanked President Xi Jinping for restraining Kim. In particular, Beijing did succeed in persuading North Korea not to follow through on threats to open fire across the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas in a testy standoff in late August 2015.

The significance of Park’s presence at the military parade could not be missed because the US President, Barack Obama, as well as Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, as well as many Western leaders refused to attend the event that was seen laden with anti-Japanese overtones. Beijing’s decision to host such a massive function was mere self-glorification that accorded a much larger role for Mao’s Communists in defeating Japan 70 years ago than historians agree on. Reflecting the new bonhomie between South Korea and China, South Korea’s Vice-Minister of Defence, Baek Seung-joo, observed that Park’s visit to Beijing was to confirm South Korea’s cooperative relationship with China and not aimed to bring pressure on or to exacerbate tensions in the region, including with North Korea or Japan.

Ties between the Northeast Asian states are too complex and not easy for resolution. Issues of history cloud them. In recent times, territorial issues have made the ties further messy. Despite the burgeoning economic relations amongst them, the shadow of history continues to lurk and raises its ugly head as and when seen diplomatically and politically appropriate and convenient by the parties that raise them. Japan is seen as doing little to assuage the feeling of hurt by South Korea and China. Therefore, Park paying homage to China at this time when both China and Japan are vying for regional pre-eminence looked odd, or at least that is how some analysts saw it. It needs to be remembered however that national interests overpower many other considerations in conducting a country’s diplomacy.

Even when issues of history remain unresolved, historical facts cannot be easily erased. No one disputes that Japanese forces conquered much of China in the 1930s and this single fact accounts for keeping the anti-Japanese sentiment alive in China. Whenever the victims of Japanese military aggression during World War II are talked about, South Korea and China are often paired together and this is a bonding that is immersed with emotions and sentiments, defying rationality in the present geopolitical context. This is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon and political leaders of the time would continue to use it as political expediency whenever found relevant.

Diffusing Tension in Korean Peninsula 

and China’s Hand

Seen in this context, how does Park equate her country’s relations with China over Japan as the latter is an ally like South Korea of the US and has also strong economic ties? Watchers of Northeast Asia’s security and strategic issues are unlikely to miss the fine print that Park’s visit underscored the importance of China over Japan in terms of priorities, economic inter-dependence and historical precedents. President Park seemed to be obliged to President Xi in diffusing the standoff between the two Koreas in August, when Kim Jong-un had declared a “semi-state of war” and ordered his troops to be “battle ready” if South Korea did not shut down loudspeaker broadcasts of music, news, and commentary poking fun at the North Korean leader. The dispute was resolved after marathon high-level talks in the truce village of Panmunjom. Park was convinced that China, North Korea’s main source of oil and half its food, had a hidden hand to draw Kim to the negotiating table to resolve the issue. Much to Park’s pleasure, Kim expressed “regret” for the landmine explosion in the DMZ that severely wounded two South Korean sergeants, a rather rare and unexpected gesture.

With this new bonhomie, can one expect the stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme to restart? There are no easy answers as the issue is too complex and Pyongyang is unlikely to concede without major concession as the nuclear issue is maintained as a security guarantee to which, it feels, there is no substitute. North Korea maintains nuclear weapons as a source of pride and deterrence. It has already conducted three nuclear tests and is believed to have fabricated at least a dozen nuclear warheads. When the North threatened to conduct a fourth nuclear test, Beijing seemed to have pressured Pyongyang against such a move even though its relations with the North have soured in recent times. Kim Jong-un still does not have an invitation to visit China even though he came to power in 2011 after his father’s death. He dispatched a senior bureaucrat and former Defence Minister and a current Secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party to represent the North at the Beijing event.

Impact on the US Alliance

What was the US reaction to Park’s decision to attend the ceremony even when it itself and its other ally, Japan, boycotted the event? Though US officials said they respect Park’s decision to go to Beijing, the US discomfort could not be denied as any division of opinions amongst its two Northeast Asian allies will adversely impact the US’ rebalance to Asia strategy. The US did not hesitate to deplore the anti-Japan overtones of the occasion. Washington is also worried that anti-Japanese bitterness has become intense in Korea in disputes over compensation for “comfort women”, mostly Koreans, who served Japanese soldiers during the War. Both South Korea and China also question Japan’s alleged attempt to rewrite school textbooks, thereby distorting historical facts. Abe’s drift towards a nationalist policy and his attempt to rewrite the country’s peace Constitution that banned Japanese forces in overseas operations is another matter of concern for South Korea. Economic consideration was another reason for Park’s decision to visit China as China is the leading trade partner of Korea and a target for Korean industrial development. It was for this reason Park had a separate meeting with Prime Minister Li Keqiang to discuss economic issues.

Snubbing Pyongyang?

Does it mean that North Korea was snubbed by China this time as the importance that Xi accorded to Park was visible to all? North Korea’s Choe Ryong-hae failed to hold a one-on-one talk with Xi and he seemed to have returned empty-handed, though he attended a reception that followed the parade. If Choe’s short trip is contrasted to the three-day visit by Park, Beijing’s preference for Seoul over Pyongyang marked a milestone in the Northeast Asian politics. There was also a warning message from Park and Xi when it was speculated that Pyongyang was planning out a missile or nuclear test in October 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party. Since Choe did not meet Xi, it was unlikely that he carried a hand-written letter from Kim. It remains unclear what was Choe’s expected role in Beijing. One possibility could be that he was dispatched to mend the recently frayed ties. Another could be Kim himself decided against visiting Beijing demonstrating his anti-Chinese sentiment as well as disrespect. Another pointer to the widening gulf between Beijing and Pyongyang compared with Beijing and Seoul was while Choe sat at the end of leaders watching the military parade, Park sat much closer to Xi for the parade viewing.

Pyongyang’s Isolation

Thus it transpired that the Seoul-Beijing summit underscored Pyongyang’s deepening isolation and estrangement from Beijing. No summit between Xi and Kim has been possible so far while Xi and Park held a summit for the sixth time (three times each in and outside China) since she assumed office in February 2013 with focus on joint efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and provocations, pointing to the growing diplomatic hiatus between Beijing and its traditional ally, Pyongyang. This was Park’s third trip to China. This development was a major departure from what was earlier claimed—that the China-North Korea relations were as close as lips and teeth and are “forged in blood”. President Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Teheran and Havana also meant Pyongyang’s isolation has been further magni-fied, which could have propelled Pyongyang at least to make an attempt to have peace with its southern neighbour, which is why it offered a rare expression of regret over the August 4 land mine blast in the DMZ and agreed to hold government-level talks to address cross-border relations and then agreed for the reunions of separated families.

For the moment, Kim’s decision could be strategic as its isolation has started suffocating the Kim regime and some way had to be found to get out of this self-created mess. Kim also seems to be worried that the legitimacy to his rule could be questioned, which is why he resorted to purges including his own uncle and the country’s defence chief to send the message that he is under control. Since Xi took power in November 2012, Kim, in a series of provo-cations, conducted a third nuclear test, tested ballistic missiles and thereby pushed the limit of his patience. Xi is infuriated and has admonished Kim for such acts. Moreover, Beijing’s own image in the world is being sullied for its assertive utterances. Xi would be keen therefore to change this emerging negative image of China and steer a role for China as a “responsible stakeholder” in regional security issues.

Importance accorded to Park

Though the Blue House statement and the South Korean media disclosed that Park was shown great respect during her visit by printing picture of Park seated next to Xi along with Putin during the parade, the meaning of the event need not be exaggerated. This is because the general situation in Northeast Asia, including the relationship between Beijing and Pyong-yang, will not change substantially in the short term. On the surface it appears that the Park-Xi bonhomie is growing and this coincides with the war of nerves between Kim and Xi, which is why it appears that Beijing is distancing from Pyongyang and getting cosy with Seoul. The truism is that China’s official policy remains the same and this includes resumption of the six-party talks, and peaceful unification of Korea. On the denuclearisation issue, China’s position is to denuclearise the whole peninsula, not just North Korea, and this includes the withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella. China intends to contain the US influence in the region. Beijing’s message by making Park sit alongside Xi could be to unsettle a bit of the alliance relationship between the US, Japan and South Korea. China still prefers the dialogue route to address the North Korean issue instead of economic sanctions. This is the reason why Beijing maintains economic cooperation with the North and continues to provide shadowy support for North Korean finance, luxury goods and fuel.

From her side, Park prefers to be friendly with China “on purpose”, as described by Professor Robert Kelly at the Pusan National University. She has already visited China six times during her term and hosted President Xi. Park needs to keep in mind, however, that China is unlikely to bend to the extent she hopes as Beijing is unlikely to abandon North Korea altogether. As long as Kim realises this reality and despite the large leverage that Beijing has over the North, Kim is unlikely to change course. There are of course other considerations, which are equally compelling.

Xi would not rejoice any instability if it occurs in China’s neighbourhood as such a development in the North would have inevitable consequences not only for China but for the entire Northeast Asia. Xi confronts huge domestic challenges such as dealing with income disparity, political corruption, bridging development gaps and others and would not welcome Pyongyang’s destabilising activities at this time. The strong economic foundation that spawned economic prosperity for its people would come under threat and therefore counsels Pyongyang to opt for the peaceful path and improve inter-Korean relations.

Japan-South Korea-China Trilateral Summit?

Even when Japan decided not to participate in the parade in Beijing, a new development that emerged from the diplomatic talks between Park and Xi is the possibility of having a trilateral summit between Park, Xi and Abe. If this materialises, it would be a welcome change in the region that is smeared with so much hatred and suspicion and where emotions/sentiments have been allowed to obfuscate reason. A trilateral meeting between Japan, South Korea and China is being planned either on October 31 or November 1, 2015 and, if it materialises, it could be a diplomatic break-through following months of tensions. South Korea is likely to host such a meeting. In return, Park would want to be paid back by making Beijing put pressure on Pyongyang to ease tensions and resume the stalled six-party talks for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga confir-med that Japan would agree to make arrange-ments in close coordination with China and South Korea to hold the three-way summit talks.

The trilateral summit, if held, could also pave way for talks between Park and Abe on the sidelines. If realised, this will be the first Japan-South Korea summit talks since Park and Abe took office, though both have made brief contacts at international conferences and elsewhere. The main focus of the envisaged Park-Abe talks is likely to be how to address the so-called comfort women issue. The official unchanged position of the Japanese Government has been that the question of compensation between the two nations has already been resolved.

The last three-way summit meeting took place in Beijing in May 2012. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is likely to attend the talks. Though the issue of historical perception is unlikely to go away so soon, the three-way talks are likely to include negotiations over a proposal to conclude a free trade agreement involving the three nations, and the North Korean issue.

Concluding Observations

So, what did President Park achieve in concrete terms from her meeting with President Xi? Despite much hype made by her sitting to the left of Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan, who herself was sitting to the left of XI and Putin to Xi’s right, leading analysts dissecting the growing bonhomie between Park and Xi and comparing the implication of this on the Japan-South Korea and Japan-China relations, and getting a ringing rebuke of Japanese military aggression from Xi, on the ground nothing much seems to have changed. No doubt, the US was not very happy with Park’s attendance at the parade as it was seen by some analysts that Park was tilting towards China at the expense of the US. That both China and South Korea recently concluded a free trade agreement and Seoul decided to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are commercial deals with little strategic intent. The message to the world being sent however seems to be that Park is seeking closer cooperation with China with the hope that the North Korean issue would be resolved. If this is the case, there is no room for assessing critically Park’s visit and meeting with Xi.

True to Park’s expectation, China joined South Korea to warn North Korea against moves that could precipitate tensions in the Korean peninsula. The Iran deal in mind, the need to resume the stalled six-party talks was stressed as well.

Unfortunately, making Japan the target could have been avoided. That does not help the interests of regional peace. It would be in every- one’s interest if the history issue is buried sooner than later. Using common historical experience to forge “a precious foundation for friendship” seems an inappropriate way of conducting diplomacy. It appears that South Korea is still burdened by the tributary relationship with China that it had centuries ago and is unable to get out of it. On the other side, China would feel pleased to be getting respect from South Korea.

Seen at another level, Park is successfully promoting her country’s middle power diplomacy. It remains unclear however if this approach shall help or hinder South Korea’s alliance relationship with the US. South Korea’s joining the AIIB could be a test case as the US sees the Chinese move to establish such a bank as a challenge to its global economic leadership. How Park steers South Korea’s middle power diplomacy and strikes a balance between South Korea’s relationships with China and the US remains to be seen. Besides the AIIB, there are many other issues such as trade, maritime security, climate change, development coope-ration, finance and North Korea’s nuclear issue that would weigh heavily on Park’s conduct of South Korea’s foreign policy. Analysed from all sides, it transpires that South Korea’s choice to play the middle power diplomacy would not be at the expense of its reliance on the alliance relationship with the US. There could be some fissures, such as the AIIB and Park’s attendance of the military parade in Beijing which might displease Washington, but the core of the alliance relationship would remain as robust as before and is unlikely to be ruffled by a few regional issues.

As Scott A. Snyder recently observed, “South Korea’s desire and capability to fulfill its middle power aspirations may be framed by how Seoul handles its respective relations with Washington and Beijing. To the extent that the Sino-US relationship is conflictual, such an environment will force South Korea to make undesirable choices. Those choices currently appear to be accumulating: both South Korea’s AIIB decision and its decision on whether or not to allow the introduction to the peninsula of the Theatre High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile system will have a bearing on the future shape of global economic governance and the regional security environment, respectively.” Nothing can be farther from the truth as the recent developments have demonstrated.

Dr Rajaram Panda, a former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, New Delhi, is currently an independent researcher based in New Delhi. He specialises on Asia-Pacific security and strategic issues, with focus on Japan and the Koreas. He can be reached at

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