As a middle-power nation, South Korea has remained flexible to pursue its independent agenda amid the US-China rivalry. This serves as a model for Taiwan as the nation strives to gain more diplomatic space.
In conventional international relations, lesser powers are thought to live at the mercy of greater powers and the latter make decisions without consulting the former.
However, South Korea proves to be an exception, as it maintains strong security ties with the US against North Korea while expanding substantial business links with China.
The past few years witnessed a considerable improvement of China-South Korea relations. Beijing worked to deepen ties with Seoul at all levels.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rose to power, he not only broke the longstanding tradition of visiting Pyongyang before Seoul, but also chose not to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (金正恩) to Beijing. Being South Korea’s largest business partner, China initiated a bilateral free-trade agreement to bring the two nations closer.
South Korea being drawn into a Chinese sphere of influence raised eyebrows in Washington about Seoul’s commitment to the US-South Korea defense treaty. Since the end of World War II, the US has built large military bases and facilities in Japan and South Korea, two of its closest allies in East Asia. Faced with a rising China and a reckless North Korea, the US is determined to transform bilateral relations with Japan and South Korea into a trilateral defense partnership.
South Korea’s pursuit of economic and security interests might not always align with the US’ global agenda.
China’s growing economy has given South Korean businesses an opportunity to make profits. Seoul’s decision to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) rather than the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s attendance of a parade marking the 70th anniversary of the end of what Beijing calls the World Anti-Fascist War in August last year created the impression that South Korea is drifting toward China.
Seoul is aware of Chinese efforts to project power abroad and to compete with the US.
However, Seoul has not adjusted its military stance or aligned itself with Beijing; it has only accommodated China’s rise to enhance its bargaining power in regional politics.
Western observers are debating whether China is a “status quo” state or a revisionist state set out to subvert the US-led international order. The lack of clarity from Beijing has prompted Washington to implement a dual strategy of engagement and containment in an effort to bolster regional defense in Asia. Because Beijing refused to suspend its military buildup in the South China Sea, Washington signed a defense accord with Manila in 2014 in a bid to uphold international rules governing maritime sovereignty disputes.
As an emerging superpower, Beijing refuses to adhere to the US-dominated international rules that are thought to favor Washington alone.
The US policy in the western Pacific is built on a combination of economic and military components. On the economic front, the US tries to push free-trade negotiations with 16 nations through the TPP. By excluding China from the trade bloc, Washington aims to reassert US leadership in shaping global economic regulations across the Pacific Ocean.
On the military side, the US, which plans to deploy 60 percent of its navy to Asian waters, has formed alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and Thailand, and sent personnel to improve Taiwan’s air force and missile defense systems.
By acknowledging Washington’s geopolitical agendas, Seoul has gained much maneuverability on the international stage. The North Korean nuclear crisis is the only issue that legitimizes the US-South Korea alliance. It is the best deterrent against any attack from the North, but South Korea needs China’s blessings to achieve its long-term goal of reunification. This objective has motivated South Korea to compromise with China, which could reduce the efficacy of its alliance with the US.
Both the US and China have been catering to the needs of South Korea. This enabled the South to gain an additional ally in China to keep North Korea in check. As Beijing failed to discipline Pyongyang, Seoul agreed to embrace the US-implemented Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
Two important lessons can be discerned for president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration. The first is to be passively proactive in dealing with China. Taiwan’s future is of great importance to East Asia. As China considers Taiwan to be one of its “core interests,” it is still trying to come to grips with the rapidly growing pro-independence sentiment in the nation.
The US also finds it impossible to give up Taiwan, as this would intensify South Korea’s and Japan’s fear of US abandonment. Therefore, Taiwan can follow in the footsteps of South Korea to pursue a proactive diplomatic strategy amid the US-China competition.
One tactic is to form alliances with neighbors and position the nation as a force of stability in a volatile world.
The second lesson is to expand all levels of public diplomacy across the Taiwan Strait. This includes the promotion of Taiwanese democratic values and norms among Chinese tourists, academics, exchange students and pilgrims. The visitors are fascinated by Taiwan’s democratization when they see democracy in action and experience the freedom of expression first-hand.
Many political activists from China, Hong Kong and Macau also turn to Taiwan for ideas and guidance in their struggle for freedom. Only by supporting the cross-strait democratic initiatives would the nation become an example of peaceful transformation in China.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York.
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