By Sunny Lee
Korea Times correspondent
PARIS — China’s playing the staunch guardian role for North Korea in response to the Cheonan incident greatly antagonized South Koreans. Some of them saw it as a defining moment, revealing the true nature of the giant neighbor that failed to measure up to be a responsible global stakeholder.
Guy Sorman observes that the episode also left Seoul with a task of how to deal with the increasingly assertive and domineering superpower in the future. He yet adds that the problem of how to handle China is a global problem today.
The Western construct that China is an “irresponsible superpower” has found a new market in South Korea, which saw China shielding North Korea from the global outrage over the Cheonan incident.
Many South Koreans initially believed that China, which is South Korea’s strategic partner in diplomacy and its largest partner in trade, would come to endorse South Korea in its seeking of international justice to assign blame to North Korea after an international inquiry determined that the North torpedoed the 88-meter-long warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors in March. That didn’t happen.
On the contrary, China, a veto power-wielding U.N. Security Council member, even watered down a presidential statement condemning the attack so that North Korea was not identified as the culprit. As a result, no punishment was meted out. Pyongyang called it a diplomatic victory.
South Koreans became further indignant by China when the local JoongAng Ilbo newspaper last week leaked a rare scoop of inside diplomatic exchanges between Seoul and Beijing over the Cheonan in which the Chinese diplomats reportedly displayed an overbearing attitude toward their South Korean counterparts, which a South Korean diplomat characterized as “hardly fitting in the 21st century international diplomatic decorum.”
For example, it said China “gave the silent treatment to the South Korean ambassador’s request for a consultation meeting.” A Chinese diplomat reportedly said: “If there were no U.S. (as the protector for South Korea), China would have already ‘laid a hand’ on South Korea.” Regarding the U.S.-South Korea joint naval drills, Chinese officials also reportedly warned: “Doing something like this won’t be good for South Korea.”
An unnamed South Korean diplomat told the newspaper: “In the past, China undertook an all-out campaign to project the image of a ‘peacefully rising country.’ But during the diplomatic exchanges over the Cheonan, they left in my mind an imprint of the ‘China threat.’”
China: powerful and arrogant
In reviewing the Cheonan incident, Guy Sorman, the globe-trotting French intellectual, observed that the case also left South Korea with the tough task of how to deal with the increasingly assertive and domineering China in the future.
“The big problem in South Korea is nobody knows how to deal with China,” Sorman said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Sorman, a global affairs columnist and who advises a number of national leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, believes South Korea’s misplaced hope on China fundamentally stems from its lack of understanding of the nation.
At first sight, this may sound a hard claim to make with South Koreans, who share the same Confucian tradition, and who grew up reading Chinese classics such as “the Three Kingdoms” and reciting phrases from “the Analects.”
Korean businessmen often boast that Koreans understand China better than any other people, citing the very successful South Korean companies’ presence in China as proof.
Sorman begged to differ. “I visit South Korea on a regular basis. In fact, I was there in early July as well. And I am surprised by the fact that China is not well known in South Korea,” he said.
Sorman took an example with the South Korean media. “There is very little coverage of China in the South Korean media outlets, such as human rights, politics or social issues like the increasing wealth gap between urban and rural people in China. I am surprised. South Koreans don’t get anything about these topics from their newspapers,” he said.
South Korea lacks China experts
South Korea also suffers from its lacking pool of China experts. John Delury, the former associate director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, and who has recently moved to Seoul to assume professorship at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, confessed his difficulty in locating other China hands in the Korean academia.
Sorman also diagnosed that some South Koreans, including intellectuals, have an idealistic and abstract idea about China with subliminally embedded bonding based on cultural affinity and shared history that goes back two millennia ago, underestimating the seismic changes China had gone through under the Communist Party in recent decades during which South Korea didn’t have diplomatic ties with China. During that period, South Korean schools under heavy anti-Communist indoctrination didn’t teach much about the People’s Republic of China to their students either because it’s a “communist country.”
Even after establishing diplomatic ties in 1992, when South Korean companies started to rush to the people’s market, mainstream South Korean academics have largely maintained their focus on Western democracies, notably the United States.
As a result, “South Koreans really don’t know what’s going on in China,” Sorman said.
Sorman said South Korea should really catch up with the up-to-date reality of “the People’s Republic of China,” rather than ancient China.
“South Koreans should know more and better about China. Maybe in-depth media coverage about what is really going on in China and about the Chinese society and about the Communist Party will be helpful,” he said.
Yet South Korean media outlets tend to use China primarily as a base camp to cover North Korea-related stories, while “China stories” themselves are marginalized. Some also point out the inadequate language training of some South Korean journalists stationed in China and their usual three-year stint, which greatly limit their ability to write in-depth stories.
The “drought” of South Korea’s pool of diplomats who are experts on China has been another long-cited problem that has been attributed to the ineffectiveness of South Korea’s diplomatic leverage with China too. Zhan Debin, a Korea specialist at Fudan University in Shanghai, warned of this problem as early as in 2008 when he wrote in the Global Times: “It is an open secret that South Korean foreign ministry lacks China experts.”
Sorman said another problem that prevents South Koreans from gaining the facts and reality on China is very strong pro-China lobbying in South Korea, which is often combined with business interests, politics, left-wing scholars, and civic groups.
China’s clout over North Korea
Some observers fear that the Cheonan incident has resulted in a Cold War-like state in East Asia with China camping with Russia and North Korea on the one side, and the U.S. siding with South Korea and Japan on the other.
Sorman believes China uses North Korea for its international strategy. In fact, he argues China “manipulates” North Korea.
“China would say, ‘Oh, North Korea doesn’t listen to us.’ This is a game China plays often. The fact is that North Korea is a puppet of China. China and North Korea play exactly the same game. North Korea is fully manipulated by China. It’s clear from the beginning (of the Cheonan incident) when China refused to condemn North Korea.
“The key to the North Korean problem is Beijing. I have argued this point as early as 20 years ago. But people were skeptical,” Sorman said, adding the Cheonan incident proved his point.
From this view, South Korea’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea should focus on China because “Talking to North Korea will go nowhere. Because everything will be decided in Beijing. This is part of the global strategy by the Beijing government,” Sorman argued.
US moves to contain China
Sorman, a card-carrying supporter for globalization, has never been known as a panda-hugger. And he doesn’t appreciate the way the Middle Kingdom is coming out. In fact, his book, “China: the Empire of Lies,” is a devastatingly negative treatise on the Chinese Communist Party’s rule on China.
“The Chinese behavior in global affairs has really shifted to become aggressive since about 2008. I shared this view with President Sarkozy and some U.S. officials. The Chinese are now absolutely sure that they will be the next global superpower. They are suddenly in a hurry to assemble their influence. In international negotiations, they are also very aggressive. They don’t respect the rules of international competition. They don’t respect intellectual property rights. Today, nobody dares to confront China. China can do anything,” he said.
Sorman said China’s behavior had prompted some members of the global community to form an alliance to contain its unrestrained global expansion.
“There is an agreement now among Europe, the U.S., India and Japan to go into the direction of containing China. This doesn’t mean a war. But China has to understand it has to respect the international rules. If not, there will be negative consequences starting from the economic exchange front,” he said.
Since the Cheonan incident, the U.S. and South Korea have bolstered their security relationship, staging massive naval drills in a show of deterrence against North Korea.
The military exercises came on the heels of the visits by Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state, to hot spots in Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, South Korea and Vietnam.
China’s state media mulled over the fact that the dots connecting these countries’ capitals formed a box that surrounds China.
During her Asia visit, Clinton also said that the U.S. has a “national interest” in the dispute over the South China Sea, a resource-rich area for which China competes with a number of South Asian countries in territorial claims.
Washington’s first-ever wading into the South China Sea dispute, and the massive military drills near China’s waters, and Clinton’s visits to the countries that encircle China, raised China’s eyebrows.
“This is coincidence, but at the same time it is not coincidence,” subtly observed the Global Times editorial writer, Lei Mo, on Tuesday, weighing in on suspicions on the American containment policy on China.
Lei preemptively said that America’s “choosing confrontation with China will not be a wise strategy,” borrowing the quote from the eminent American expert on China, Sidney Rittenberg: “If you treat China as your enemy, China will become one.”
Sorman sees that the American move to contain China has already kicked in. “I think the democratic countries understand that they should send a signal to China that it should behave according to international rules.
“China may be dangerous someday∼. The time to stop China is now.”