Why South Korea Is Silent on China's Moves in the South China Sea
Last month on The Diplomat, Van Jackson made an important argument about South Korea's increasingly notable silence on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
Jackson, like many analysts, recognizes growing Chinese misbehavior there, most obviously the destabilizing island-reclamation strategy and expansive sovereignty claims it fuels. Jackson would like to see greater South Korean engagement (actually, any at all). He rightfully notes that the more unified the Asian front regarding rules in the Western Pacific, the more likely China is to moderate its actions.
Where is the ROK on the South China Sea?
South Korea is a U.S. ally. As a trading state heavily dependent on open, safe sea-lanes, it has a strong interest in freedom of navigation rules. As a proximate neighbor of China, it has a similarly strong interest in China's socialization into a rules-bound regional community. Countries around China's periphery, from Japan to India, worry that if China is not rebuffed in the East and South China Seas, a sense of hegemonic dominance in the region may grow in Beijing. These minor conflicts are widely seen as the leading edge of the larger question of China's regional intentions as it grows ever stronger.
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These concerns about China's integration or rejection of regional rules are, of course, well known. But Jackson helpfully fingers the growing unease in the U.S. over South Korea's hedging on China. Besides silence on the South China Sea question—on which almost every other regional state has weighed in against China—the South Koreans also quickly signed up for the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and they have dragged their feet for years on missile defense deployment.
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The corresponding American anxiety is predictable. In Washington, it seems obvious that South Korea should sign up with the U.S. camp regarding China. The Republic of Korea (ROK) is a U.S. ally, which spends far less on defense than it otherwise would because of the US defense commitment. Why should the U.S. provide world-class defense to the ROK without something in return?
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Separating China from North Korea is vastly more valuable
The ROK's silence on China in the region, and the trust or at least credibility which that brings in Beijing, has a huge benefit not mentioned in Jackson's essay and elsewhere in this debate: gradually convincing China that it can safely give up it's North Korean 'buffer.' The current Chinese-North Korean relationship is the coldest it has ever been in the post-Cold War period due to vigorous diplomacy by the Park Geun-Hye Administration and its necessary (if unfortunate) reticence on Chinese regional behavior. This Sino-North Korean drift is a fantastic turn of events, which should not be jeopardized with minor South Korean gestures regarding the South China Sea.
North Korea is not even close to being economically self-sufficient (ironic, given its autarkic ideology). Specifically, North Korea has great trouble feeding its population on its own; the last time it had to, it suffered a famine that killed roughly 10% of its population. Nor can it power its machinery, vehicles, power-grids and so on without fuel imports. Nor can its decadent elites enjoy the fruits of tyranny—mansions, cars, top-shelf liquor, yachts and the rest—without a pipeline to the world and access to banks and credit. Permanent subsidization is required.
During the Cold War, the USSR and China were maneuvered into competing for a North Korean 'tilt' by sponsoring its inefficient economy. After the Cold War, the U.S., South Korea and Japan also occasionally subsidized the DRPK as part of various deals (which would invariably collapse). North Korea also routinely asks the UN and any other country that will listen for aid of almost any sort.