[Column] S. Korea’s anti-China politics

Posted on : 2021-07-23 17:45 KST Modified on : 2021-07-23 17:45 KST
China does not have the ability to demand or pressure any East Asian countries into abandoning their security cooperation with the US or backing out of their alliances
Kim Jong-dae
Kim Jong-dae

By Kim Jong-dae, visiting scholar at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

In a recent interview given in South Korea, Clive Hamilton, an Australian professor and author of the book “Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia,” said that politicians here need to come to their senses and stop taking their cues from China.

He went on to say that the freedom and independence that Koreans fought so hard to achieve are now being sold off by pro-China politicians, business elites, and opinion makers in Korea.

He argued that South Korea needs to choose between continuing to bow before China while taking its money or paying the price for freedom and independence and swallowing the economic punishments that China inflicts.

Hamilton’s arguments echo those of opposition politicians in South Korea, who claim that China is threatening South Korea’s independence, destroying the South Korea-US alliance, and attempting to influence our next presidential election.

Commenting on Hong Kong in a recent interview with a foreign news outlet, People Power Party (PPP) leader Lee Jun-seok shared the strongest anti-China remarks of any politicians, insisting that we need to fight against Chinese “cruelty.”

Yoon Seok-youl, considered the opposition’s leading presidential contender, dredged up the previously resolved dust-up between South Korea and China over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in a recent interview with a local news outlet.

“If China intends to call for THAAD’s withdrawal, it needs to first withdraw the long-range radar it has deployed near the border,” he said.

The two of them have also been denouncing the Moon Jae-in administration for being “servile” and seeking to “keep China happy.”

It’s time to get the facts straight. None of the governments of East Asia — including the Moon administration — has ever “capitulated” to coercive policies imposed by China through use of its influence.

In connection with this, the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, has drawn attention with a recently published report titled “Understanding Influence in the Strategic Competition with China.”

According to that report, China is currently facing a “dilemma in exercising influence.” If it attempts to use its “hard power” to influence other countries, that would trigger a backlash from all East Asian countries that would leave China isolated.

Caught by this dilemma, China does not have the ability to demand or pressure any East Asian countries into abandoning their security cooperation with the US or backing out of their alliances. Indeed, it has never actually done so.

The countries of East Asia want to maintain their economic relationship with China, but they have no interest in being fully absorbed into the “China model” of Chinese capital, technology, and infrastructure.

China is also in no position to use friendly media outlets and elites in other countries to change perceptions of it or to buy off pro-China figures to get them to change policies related to it. It’s not that it doesn’t want to — it simply can’t.

At the same time, the RAND Corporation report concludes that China’s influence is indeed a threat when it comes to tourism, foreign exchange student programs and regulations on foreign businesses investing in China.

China’s authoritarian actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are certainly worthy of censure. Stability in the Taiwan Strait is also a very important concern for South Korea.

But with the whole world suffering amid the pandemic, there’s no call for us to buy into “clash of civilizations” or “strategic competition” discourse and barrel into conflict. Political party leaders and potential presidential candidates, in particular, should be very cautious.

As North Korea’s provocations have abated over the past three years, South Korean conservatives have been at loose ends with the “main adversary” vacuum it left behind.

Conservative politics requires fear of a threat to the Republic of Korea’s survival to energize it. Perhaps the conservatives are frustrated with North Korea for failing to play that role for them.

But if they appoint China as “main adversary” instead, it could very well turn into an actual enemy — and that would create a situation where resolving Korean Peninsula issues becomes very difficult indeed. It’s very much in question how soundly national leaders are perceiving the situation surrounding the peninsula.

In his remarks, Hamilton projects onto South Korea wholesale Australia’s sense of “victimization” over being inveigled by the China threat.

But a mid-sized power like South Korea is not going to be as vulnerable to China as Australia, nor is it frail enough to fall prey to it easily. The money we earn from our trade with China is not a “payoff” for submitting to China — it’s compensation for South Korea’s capabilities as an innovative power.

There is no government in South Korea at the moment that is suggesting we become a Chinese tributary.

What we need right now is to forgo this unnecessary fear and victim complex in international relations, centering our diplomacy on considerations for life after the pandemic. We should be aspiring to achieve resilience.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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