Friday, July 20, 2012

Being a "balancer" is so 2004

I am extremely terrified of Chinese people in Korea.

Over at The Atlantic (HT to Wangkon), Dartmouth Professor Jennifer Lind writes that South Koreans' desire to hedge their bets against China is the real reason politicos have scuttled Japan-born South Korean President Lee Myungbak's eagerness to enter an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tōkyō:
Still, there's something more behind the unraveling of the GSOMIA accord -- South Korean ambivalence about the country's role in the unfolding U.S.-China drama. Several defense and foreign policy analysts in Seoul told me, when I visited recently, that many of their countrymen shied away from GSOMIA because they saw it as part of a U.S.-led security architecture positioned against China. They added that many South Koreans are dismayed that, as they perceive it, the U.S. increasingly sees China as a military threat. A professor at the Korea National Defense University named Lee Byeong-Gu told me, "In particular, signing the GSOMIA agreement is worrying to Koreans in light of the recent U.S. 'pivot' or 'rebalancing' toward Asia, which many people fear represents an increased containment effort toward China. Some South Koreans are calling for their government to sign an intelligence-sharing agreement with Beijing as well as with Tokyo. South Korean legislator Shim Yoon-joe commented that signing such a pact with both Japan and China is important in order "to wipe out the allegation that the Korea-Japan military pact is a stepping stone to trilateral cooperation to check China."

South Korean analysts also emphasized to me that China is their country's top trading partner. As Aidan Foster-Carter put it, "South Korea can hardly afford to be seen as ganging up on the country whose growth largely drives its own." This year marks the tenth anniversary of the normalization of relations between South Korea and China. One researcher at a think tank in Seoul remarked to me that his institute has planned conferences and other events to commemorate the anniversary, and that South Korea's many other foreign policy institutes are all doing the same. At a time when the Americans appear to be orchestrating a coalition to balance against China, South Koreans are celebrating with it a milestone in productive and friendly relations.
Anyone who recalls how badly then-President Roh Moohyun and crew shredded good relations with Japan during 2005's Japan-Korea Friendship Year would scoff at the idea that Seoul doesn't have the cojones to upset Beijing as well during the diplomatic decennial.

And the idea that South Korea doesn't want to tick off its number-one trading partner? Well, I scoff at that. In the United States, top politicians want to burn Olympic uniforms because they were made in China! And yet, Chinese continue to buy American goods and ship their own to the States.

As with the US browbeating the Middle Kingdom, would South Korea's economic relationship with China change much at all were it to strengthen its longstanding military relationship with the Americans? Doubtful. I mean, look at how Beijing already uses South Korea as a whipping boy, egging on its Netizens to attack South Korea for all kinds of surreal and imagined things. Yet they continue to buy South Korea products and ship their own to the ROK.

You see, the other side of that don't-piss-off-China equation is that China needs the rest of the world to buy its stuff (as well as to send it stuff so it can make stuff).

Anyhoo, most observers would agree the primary reason South Korean politicians were up in arms over the miasmic GSOMIA is that it's Japan. And with Japan, there is a heightened sensitivity owing to, I don't know, maybe the sixty years prior to the Korean War. Japan's motives are more cautiously scrutinized, its leaders' utterances more closely parsed, their actions analyzed more carefully, etc., etc. Lee's supposed "secret treaty" with Tōkyō smacked of the 1965 normalization treaty that many South Koreans feel sold a lot of poor folks — including the so-called "Comfort Women" sex slaves — down the Han.

Even though I think South Korea and Japan should be natural allies at this point, not everyone agrees with me, and my cause is not helped by the idiotic right-wingers that think their own country was the victim during World War II and that everything Imperial Japan did in Korea was all for Korea's own good, etc., etc.

Nonetheless, there is some merit to Professor Lind's contention that a lot of South Koreans probably don't want to conspicuously position themselves against China. All except rabid chinboistas (who want the US out because they are actually pro-North Korean) are comfortable with the fact that South Korea is firmly in the US security camp, but some want (à la Roh Moohyun's "balancer of Northeast Asia" comments) for South Korea to use its unique position (i.e., that of not having invaded any of the others or being a threat to any of the others) to play mediator and make Northeast Asia a happy-go-lucky funland (which Autocorrect briefly changed to Finland... hmmm).

Back in the middle of the last decade, I asked a KBS news anchor about Roh's "balancer" declaration, and her remarks back up my suspicions about the real meaning behind the "balancer" comment. Roh wanted to be more Sweden than Switzerland, and if he'd said "mediator" or "hostage negotiator" instead of "balancer," that would have been much clearer (but inexperienced and poorly educated heads-of-state tend toward occasionally odd lexical choices... go figure).

So while I think that Professor Lind's comments have some merit, I think she is making a mountain out of a molehill. Yeah, there was some questioning about how closely South Korea should follow the US when then-President George W. Bush was asking Roh to send ROK troops to Iraq, but that is so ten years ago. There was also a lot of pent-up frustration with the US that was let loose in 2002 and 2003 (when Dubya's "Axis of Evil" comment made a lot of South Koreans fear the US was going to unilaterally attack North Korea and spin the Peninsula into a state of war), so naturally that outdated meme tends to stick.

Do you notice I keep bringing up Roh? Maybe the problem here is that Professor Lind is walking through a time machine on her way to Incheon International Airport. Things are different from a decade earlier, and not just because Lee Myungbak is extremely pro-US or the Iraq War is over, but also because South Koreans have since been scared sh¡tless by Chinese belligerence, including support for North Korea's deadly attacks on the South, Chinese fish pirates attacking and killing South Korea Coast Guardsmen, and Chinese students showing their anger that South Koreans would be so brazen as to criticize China.

In fact, this is what I wrote in the comment section at The Atlantic:
Hear, hear! When I read that "many South Koreans are dismayed that... the U.S. increasingly sees China as a military threat," I can't help but note that many, many South Koreans themselves have come to see China as a belligerent bully.

Chinese students in Korea, organized by their government, waving giant PRC flags and attacking peaceful protestors (on North Korean human rights, Tibet, etc.) in the heart of Seoul went a long way toward burning that connection into people's brains.
And that's why I recycled the picture above (from here).

But if you don't want to take my word for it, let's ask Beijing how they feel. As if to underscore my point further, China essentially threatened South Korea if it were to go ahead with GSOMIA:
China has many means to influence South Korea. When domestic forces fail to stop Seoul’s unfriendly moves against China, China should implement means to exert pressure on the South Korean government.

China and South Korea are close neighbors, and China is also deeply involved in the Peninsula’s affairs. This determines that the relationship between Beijing and Seoul has to be friendly. If their strategic partnership is ruined, this will bring a lose-lose situation.
And this sentiment — "That's a nice country you've got there, South Korea... it would be a shame if something were to happen to it" — is why I have an ironically titled "Benevolent Big Brother China" label for many of my PRC-related posts. 

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