Get Ready, America: The Winds of Change Are Blowing in East Asia

"A rift between South Korea and Japan and flourishing ties between China and South Korea pose huge challenges to U.S. interests."

The ISIS and Gaza crises in the Middle East along with the conflict in Ukraine have pushed potentially momentous events in the Asia-Pacific this summer to the middle pages. Yet we are witnessing the beginning of a major reconfiguration of the East Asian geopolitical landscape that promises to have profound implications for, among others, the world’s three largest economies.

The visit of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Seoul early in July may well have cemented the trend. Xi became the first Chinese leader to travel to South Korea without visiting longtime ally North Korea—and young North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has yet to visit Beijing nearly three years after coming to power.

State-controlled media in China billed Xi’s meeting with South Korean president Park Geun-hye as “ground-breaking,” claiming it struck at the heart of the trilateral pact that binds the United States, Japan and South Korea together. Meanwhile, in Seoul, the visit triggered media frenzy, with countless commentaries speculating over its long-term impact on the region.

Some observers were quick to play down its significance. For them, the status quo is set in stone: China will never abandon an alliance with North Korea that was signed in blood in the Korean War more than sixty years ago; South Korea will do nothing to weaken trilateral ties with the United States and Japan. But these comfortable blinkers obfuscate mounting evidence on the ground that South Korea is embarking on a concerted move away from its dependence on the United States towards a deeper relationship with China.

President Park’s tone towards Xi Jinping over the past year has been palpably amicable, marking her down as far more “pro-China” than even former left-wing president Roh Moo-hyun, who was routinely criticized for being anti-American, pro-China and Pyongyang sympathetic.

At an APEC summit in October of last year, Park reportedly quoted Xi a line from an ancient Chinese poem; a line she learned from a work of calligraphy Xi had previously gifted her. In contrast, she refused to even acknowledge the presence of Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. They were sitting next to each other at the time.

Park’s warmth towards Beijing is of course rooted in economics and politics. China is now South Korea’s largest trading partner and largest export market for hi-tech goods. Crucially, a vitally important free-trade agreement between the two countries is gathering momentum with both sides pledging to sign a deal before the end of the year.

This agreement could underpin the RMB’s gradual transformation into an intra-Asian tradable currency, even as South Korea’s central bank continues to buy into U.S. treasury bonds. It may also pull mainland Asia away from the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership coalition-building efforts (a proposed free-trade agreement involving twelve countries).

Furthermore, the Park administration is giving serious consideration to participating in talks over a new China-led regional bank to fund infrastructure projects in Asia. The proposed Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank is seen by many as a challenge to the U.S.- and Japan-led Asian Development Bank.

Military ties between China and South Korea are also beginning to improve. Following Xi’s trip to South Korea, the two sides agreed to establish a direct hotline between their two defense ministers. Tension remains of course. A failure to finalize an agreement over the precise parameters of a partially overlapping, maritime exclusion zone resulted in the South Korean coast guard shooting dead a Chinese fishing-boat captain. And back in 2011, a South Korean coast guard officer died in a scuffle with Chinese fishermen. Remarkably, however, in the latest incident there has even been some criticism within South Korea of the coast guard’s use of live firearms. One can only imagine, by contrast, the level of national outrage had it been the Japanese coast guard that killed a South Korean national.

Goodwill between the Chinese and South Korean people has been on the rise, notwithstanding that maritime tension. South Korean soap operas enjoy phenomenal popularity on the Chinese mainland, while a mash-up dance video poking fun at Kim Jong-un has attracted millions of hits in China (much to the anger of North Korea).

It will take more than outlandish plot lines and viral videos to smooth the way to a formal Beijing-Seoul alliance. But driving South Korea and China closer together are their fragmented relations elsewhere in the region.