This is the first in a series highlighting President-elect Park Geun-hye's options in dealing with China. — ED.
By Sunny Lee
BEIJING – Against the backdrop of America's deepening military and security engagement in the Asia-Pacific, including the U.S. decision to expand its missile-defense shield, China has been increasingly raising its eyebrows at the military alliance Seoul has with Washington. Simply put, China is suspicious whether South Korea's defense pact with the U.S. is not just against North Korea, but also against China.
Yang Xiyu, an insider of the Chinese foreign-policy thinking, who was former director in charge of the Korean affairs at the Chinese foreign ministry, views the U.S.-South Korea military alliance as "potentially the hottest-button issue" that could test the bilateral ties in the incoming Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping administrations.
"From China's geo-strategic perspective, the biggest question it has with South Korea is about the nature of Seoul-Washington military alliance," Yang told The Korea Times in an exclusive interview.
America's decision to expand its missile-defense shield in the Asia-Pacific region, ostensibly to defend against North Korea, feeds China's long-running fears about containment by Washington. It makes Beijing further suspicious about the Seoul-Washington military liaison.
In later October, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said after annual security talks with his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin that Washington is still in consultations with Seoul over its future role in a regional missile defense system. That was the first ever U.S. defense minister mentioning of MD negotiations with South Korea. Seoul's defense ministry denied such possibility, leaving mixed feelings.
China therefore wants to see Seoul "clearly defining the coverage of U.S.-South Korea alliance and limit it to defend the South from North Korea. When this is clear, that will significantly reduce the strategic mistrust between China and South Korea," Yang said.
Born out of the 1950-53 Korean War, the Seoul-Washington alliance has been the mainstay of South Korea's defense against North Korea, which started the war. The two Koreas are still technically at war with each other, as the war ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty that would have officially concluded the war.
During the war, China sent troops to assist North Korea, effectively dulling the U.S.-led coalition troops' otherwise winning campaign. Amid prolonging stalemate near the 38th Parallel of the Peninsula where neither side made any significant headway, the parties struck a stopgap solution to exit the bloody war, commencing what observers saw the start of a permanent division of the Korean Peninsula ever since.
Given the historical baggage, China is willing to "look the other way" with regard to the Korea-U.S. alliance, as long as its coverage is limited to defend Seoul from North Korea. However, if the scope and nature of the alliance expands beyond the Korean Peninsula and takes a regional role in East Asia, that will encroach into China's strategic sphere. "Beijing then has to call foul," said Yang.
In a rare and remarkably frank interview, the former Chinese foreign ministry official shared with the Korea Times about the Chinese perspective on the delicate affair. Below is an excerpt from the interview.
Korea Times: Both China and South Korea just finalized in choosing their next top leaders. What do you think is the single most important issue that you see requires close coordination and dialogue between Beijing and Seoul?
Yang Xiyu: Potentially the most challenging area between China and South Korea is the coverage of U.S.-South Korea military alliance. As I see it, that has been the case during the Lee Myung-bak administration. It will likely to be so in the incoming Park Geun-hye administration as well. For South Korea, the purpose of the alliance is protection from North Korea. But for the U.S., it is definitely not limited to North Korea. The U.S. wants to have the flexibility of its troops stationed in South Korea (so as to deploy them for other geopolitical conflicts) and that's something China is very much concerned about.
KT: Why China should be concerned about it?
Yang: Let me be blunt. The U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea are not just about North Korea, but have to do with the U.S. strategy in East Asia. So, in a sense, South Korea has become integrated into U.S. regional strategy that has China and Russia in mind.
KT: Could you be specific?
Yang: The U.S. has already completed its missile defense (MD) system in the west of Russia, in Europe. Now, the U.S. is thinking about having one in Russia's east. Doing so will "strike two birds with one stone," targeting both Russia and China. The U.S. already has put in place sophisticated MD system in Japan and is in consultations with the Philippines. If South Korea joins the U.S-led MD program, the U.S. missile defense system will cover Russia in its entirety and China's eastern and southern coastal areas. In that case, Seoul can no longer say its military alliance with the U.S. is only about North Korea. It also means that South Korea can become a target by missiles coming from China too. It's because when the U.S. confronts China or Russia in the region, it will naturally use the assets it has deployed in South Korea.
KT: That's the scenario of what can possibly happen. What's the alternative scenario that can prevent it from happening?
Yang: As I see it, South Korea has two pillars of security. One, of course, is its military pact with the United States. The second pillar is to have a self-reliant national defense system. The two goals may conflict with each other. But I think there should be a balance between the two. And the balancing point is to clearly set the boundary for the South Korea-U.S. alliance, which should solely serve to counter the threats posed by North Korea. That should be the bottom line. If the U.S. expands the alliance beyond the Korean Peninsula, that would mean the U.S. is taking advantage of the alliance to do something else. If that happens, China would feel that its security is compromised and in turn South Korea's security will be also affected as it becomes a potential military target from China.
KT: Some may interpret that China is trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington?
Yang: Let me clarify. When I say "self-reliant defense," I don't mean South Korea should have its own defense without its alliance with the United States. What I mean is that South Korea should have its own independence "within" its alliance with the United States. And that is to clearly define the coverage of U.S.-South Korea alliance and limit it to defend the South from North Korea. I think when this is clear, that will significantly reduce the possible strategic mistrust between China and South Korea. As South Korea has some concerns about China's rise and its future regional strategy, China also feels some strategic differences with South Korea, and the biggest among them is the Seoul-Washington military alliance. If there is a clear definition about the role of the alliance, I think this will greatly boost the strategic trust between China and South Korea.
KT: There are two parties to an alliance relationship, with each side focusing on its own advantage of having it. It may be difficult for Seoul to persuade Washington to use the alliance only for Seoul's interest.
Yang: I don't' see it that way. Historically speaking, the purpose of the Seoul-Washington alliance, which was signed in the aftermath of the Korean War was to prevent another Korean war or to prevent North Korea from invading South Korea again. So, the purpose and scope of the alliance should serve its stated goal, which is to protect South Korea from the North's attack. If not, it's like to "hang out a sheep's head, but sell dog meat," to use the Chinese proverb.
KT: If you were a South Korean strategist, what would you maneuver it?
Yang: Essentially, South Korea has to ask itself what kind of alliance it wants? Does it want the alliance to protect itself? Or, does it want the alliance to play a regional role that goes beyond the Korean Peninsula? In principle, we oppose the presence of U.S. troops in a third country. But due to historical reasons, the U.S. troops have been stationed in South Korea and Japan. And since this is a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and these countries, we don't have the right to interfere with them. But then, when the alliance plays a role beyond bilateral in nature, then China has to call foul.
If South Korea–U.S. alliance is strictly about North Korea, that's fine. But if it is about managing East Asia, then it involves China as well, because China is part of East Asia. When China sees the alliance is not just about bilateral, China has the right to say no. As of today, South Korea and the U.S. have not publicly declared "strategic flexibility" about their alliance. But if that alliance expands to cover the entire region, then I would call it "hegemony."