BEIJING ― Korea and China, despite their different political systems, can co-exist peacefully and it would be very helpful if incoming President Park Geun-hye, who speaks Chinese, gets to know the country's new leader Xi Jinping personally, said Linda Jakobson, an internationally well-known expert on China's foreign and security policy.
In 2004, when outlining his vision for peace in the Middle East, U.S. President George Bush said: "Democracies don't go to war with each other." The unspoken implication, behind the popular international theory, is that conflicts arise when countries have different political systems.
If the view holds water, South Korea is in deep trouble. As a democracy, it has two non-democratic neighbors: North Korea and China. Furthermore, Seoul already has a history of fighting the duo during the Korean War, which resulted in over 2 million Korean civilians' deaths.
Given the historical baggage, there is reason why South Koreans see the rapid expansion of the giant neighbor with some trepidation. First of all, as a non-democracy, China has a political institution that is not transparent. That makes Seoul nervous because it doesn't know how powerful Beijing will behave in the future, especially in its dealing with smaller neighbors. The easy reference is the trendy Western mantra, "China threat."
Yet Jakobson, who has written six books about China, disowns the popular view. "I sincerely believe a country like China and a country like South Korea can peacefully coexist," she told The Korea Times in an interview in Beijing.
"First of all, I don't think it is inevitable for China, as it rises, to use its power in an abusive way. China needs South Korea and the rest of the region to continue its economic growth," she said.
Jakobson believes that the possibility of Beijing playing a positive role in the future has been overlooked by outside security experts, especially those in the United States. "They tend to focus on the uncertainties about China's rise and have been painting an overly pessimistic view," she said.
Jakobson, a Finn who first visited China in 1987 and has since closely observed its spectacular development, dubbed "China's rise," in its foreign and security policy. She served as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) director for China and the Global Security Program. Currently, she heads the East Asian Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia's most respected think tank.
Australia is similar to South Korea in that its major ally is the United States, while its largest trading partner is China. Jakobson compares the security implications for both Australia and South Korea. In addition, Jakobson is from Finland, whose history is bound to the fact that it has a powerful neighbor Russia, previously the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Finland's relationship with Moscow resulted in the use of the terminology, "Finlandization," which was used by critics of Helsinki's policies to describe it overly taking the Soviet Union into consideration in crafting its foreign policies. Finland's case has great relevance to the geopolitical situation South Korea is in too.
From her vantage point of knowing China in and out, and emphasizing South Korea's situation, Jakobson describes Seoul as "the most difficult case" among all other regional neighbors that have to deal with the rise of its neighbor.
"If I have to name a single country in the world that is most vulnerable to China's rise, that would be South Korea," she concluded.
Beijing is, according to Jakobson, Seoul's "very close yet complex neighbor when it comes to North Korea." She calls for skillful and visionary leadership by the new South Korean leader Park, including getting to know her Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on a personal level. Below is an excerpt from the interview.
Q: President Lee Myung-bak has been criticized for his policy of leaning too close to the U.S. But in the last three years, as Asian nations underwent territorial disputes, we also witnessed many other countries in the region also inching closer to Washington as well.
A: It's due to the uncertainty surrounding China's rise. Essentially, we do not know how China is going to use its power, as it grows stronger. This is the most challenging question in the region. Since we don't know what the "rise of China" will mean, many countries in the region, including South Korea, have looked to the U.S. as a security guarantor.
Q: Will China turn out to be a bully?
A: Of course there are a lot of uncertainties. In recent months, we have seen a lot of signs that China has already acted assertively to defend its perceived sovereign rights in territorial disputes it has with neighbors. But that doesn't mean that China is out to be an invader or an occupier, or even wants to go to war. What China will do if its rise continues, we really don't know. And I don't think it is even wise for us to try to pre-conclude what China will look like in 20 or 30 years, when we don't even know what China will look like in five years time. But it is not inevitable there will be a clash. Likewise, I don't think there will be a major clash between South Korea and China either.
Q: Some strategists argue that Seoul should increase its dependency on the United States further, as Japan has done.
A: Not necessarily. Doing so will antagonize China if Korea becomes too close to the United States. Seoul and Washington are already very close. This balancing act requires a skillful leadership, but also, I think, a visionary leadership. There are instances when one doesn't have to carry out policies that are reminiscent of the Cold War when one sees everything as black and white, and chooses sides. Besides, while it's clear that Korea's strongest security guarantor is the United States, it doesn't mean that it has to follow all the decisions the U.S. makes when that is not in the interests of Korea.
As a Finn, I know that the term "Finlandization" carries a negative connotation. It means you lose your ability to make foreign policy decisions independently. Finland and the Soviet Union never had an alliance, so this comparison is a stretch. But when one relies on an alliance for security, there is an anticipation to go along with all the political decisions the stronger counterpart makes, which in Korea's case is the United States. Yet, I don't think in this new geopolitical era that is necessary. It certainly is not in the interests of the weaker country in the alliance.
Q: You said Korea is most vulnerable to the geopolitical shift, engineered by China. What then should Korea do about it?
A: South Korea needs to maintain good relations with China, not only because of the reasons that other countries in the region have, such as a strong trade relationship, but also because of the complex situation vis-à-vis North Korea. And that's an added element that the South Korean government has to think about, as "the China factor" affects all the major foreign-policy decisions it makes. Furthermore, it's very difficult for South Korea to decrease its dependency on China because of so many Korean companies investing there. Enterprises go wherever the market is.
Q: China has just installed a new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Just like we don't know much about China, we also feel we don't know enough about him either. Some say he is a reformist. Others say he's a conservative, who projects the reformist image to garner popularity.
A: Xi has already made it very clear that he wants to be seen very differently from his predecessor Hu Jintao. We've seen that in his down-to-earth body language and his choice of traveling to Shenzhen, which is the birthplace of China's reform. I think he wants to take over the mantle of Deng Xiaoping. Now, the question is, is he a visionary? Is he a skillful leader like Deng? That remains to be seen. I don't think Xi Jinping is going to show what he really thinks about anything in particular before March when he will officially assume the presidency of China. So, we're going to have to wait. By the way, I will publish my analysis of Xi Jinping soon. It will be available on the Lowy Institute's website.
Q: Besides China, Korea also has some issues with Japan lately.
A: Yes, these are worrisome. If the relationship between Korea and Japan were not as bad as they are at present, I would have said that the best way forward would be to coordinate much more closely in jointly dealing with China, as Washington would like to see them do. But there are reasons why Korea and Japan do not walk hand in hand on a number of issues, despite the fact that doing so would be to the benefit of both countries.
Q: You said Korea needs a visionary leader who can skillfully manage its relationship with both the U.S. and China. Tell us a few do's and don'ts.
A: I think this is more related to the United States, but first of all, South Korea must be included in any discussions the U.S. has about North Korea. There have been cases in which North Korea tried to bypass South Korea. I think it's very important that South Korea must be included in all the plans and dealings vis-à-vis North Korea.
As to South Korea's new president, if I were her I would get to know Xi Jinping on a personal level. I think that's terribly important. I think it helps if two leaders know each other. It's a very important part of the Chinese psyche. They attach great importance to human relations and state behaviors are an extension of human relationships.
Q: Recently, there have been renewed concerns over China's initiative, the so-called "Northeast Project," (dong bei gong cheng), which many scholars in South Korea see as Beijing's efforts to annex ancient North Korean history, especially that of the Goguryo Kingdom, as one of China's ethnic minorities' history.
A: South Korea should find a way to discuss the Northeast Project with China, and also the other thorny issue of North Korean refugees. These matters can be first discussed at the "1.5 track" (a meeting where both academics and government officials attend), if direct government-to-government consultations are not feasible. These are dormant hot-button issues that can suddenly blow up in your face. We saw this in the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue. China should also be forthcoming in this effort.
Q: Koreans feel pinched between the U.S. and China. But they also feel squeezed between powerful two Asian countries, China and Japan, as well. To be frank, Koreans carry a deep victim consciousness. We don't want to be game coveted by powerful neighbors.
A: I think Korea should find a way to increase its role in the region. I would put a lot of efforts in moving forward the current effort to establish East Asian trilateral free trade agreements (FTA). Luckily, Seoul hosts the coordinating office for that. It's a really good thing for South Korea. That entrusts South Korea to play an important role in the region. This East Asia trilateral partnership, I think, is really important in bringing the three countries together, burying old animosities. In fact, South Korea can play the role of being the "glue" between China and Japan.
Q: Finally, if this interview goes into print, what would you like to have as the title?
A: Oh, let me think. I would say Seoul should make good use of the trilateral FTA initiative. I think that's really a worthy endeavor for Seoul to pursue energetically and seriously.