WASHINGTON – One of the most stunning geopolitical transformations in recent years has been the warming relationship between South Korea and China. Yet Beijing is putting those ties at risk in a fit of pique over Seoul’s decision to participate in the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system. American policymakers are enjoying the spectacle of the China pushing Seoul back toward the U.S.
Beijing’s relationship with South Korea began inauspiciously, with China backing North Korea’s Kim Il Sung after his campaign to conquer the South in June 1950 faltered.
Although combat was halted by an armistice in July 1953, formal peace never came. Throughout the Cold War China backed North Korea. Only in 1992 did China and South Korea finally initiate diplomatic relations.
Even then, economic links long predominated. The North retained China’s primary political affection. Indeed, the North Korea-China relationship was managed by the Communist Party’s International Department and the People’s Liberation Army retained particular interest in bilateral ties.
Today China trades more with the South than do the U.S. and Japan combined. Moreover, the political relationship has shifted as well, as Pyongyang ignored China’s advice and admonitions against proceeding with nuclear and missile programs.
The result has been precisely the sort of instability and controversy that China does not want on its border. Beijing long has been unhappy with the antics of its nominal friend and in recent years warmed its relationship with Seoul.
However, Chinese officials fear that taking tougher measures, such as cutting off energy and food assistance, would promote a North Korean collapse, which could spread refugees, conflict, and nukes, to China’s obvious detriment. Moreover, reunification might yield a united Korea allied with America and hosting U.S. troops, precisely what Mao Zedong’s China sought to forestall more than 66 years ago.
Fear of North Korean missile and nuclear capabilities caused South Korea to agree last year to participate in America’s THAAD anti-missile system. Beijing denounced the decision, fearing that the program also would be directed against China.
So Beijing now is targeting commercial and cultural ties between the two countries. China has prohibited package tours to the South. Beijing also has blocked streaming of South Korean television shows and K-pop music videos in China.
Concerts by South Korean pop groups and fan meets by television stars have been canceled. Chinese consumers are organizing online to boycott cosmetics from the South. Chinese hackers have attacked websites for the Lotte Group, which sold land to the South Korean government for deployment of THAAD.
Such activities, however, won’t change Seoul’s policy. Certainly Chinese officials would not surrender to a similar campaign against Beijing.
Indeed, China’s aggressive response is particularly myopic given politics in the South. With President Park Geun Hye’s ouster, early presidential elections soon may bring the left-wing opposition to power. Then South Korea might take a more accommodating position toward China.
Moreover, by interfering with South Korean cultural exports, Beijing is targeting the part of the South Korean population most likely to want a closer relationship with China. Younger South Korean generations came of age as China expanded its role in the South. At the popular level China is gaining on America.
However, by lashing out at South Koreans of all sorts — what do K-pop stars have to do with missile defense? — Beijing reminds its potential friends that it remains an authoritarian state which subjugates individual choice to political ends. Cutting off group tours imposes an economic price on South Korea, but on average South Koreans, not government officials. In contrast, flooding the South with Chinese tourists would be more likely to win hearts and minds for China.
Ironically, in launching its economic campaign Beijing is effectively doing Washington’s bidding. U.S. policymakers long have worried about China’s economic draw on the South. Now China is voluntarily curbing those ties.
Ultimately the problem is North Korea. Beijing, Seoul and Washington should develop a concerted approach to promote denuclearization in the North — providing the latter a greater sense of security while simultaneously applying greater pressure. It’s the only strategy likely to yield positive results.
In the meantime, China should rethink its self-defeating strategy of trashing its new friend. China and South Korea should cooperate to promote regional stability and peace. The sooner they start working together, the better.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World” and co-author of “The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relationship with North and South Korea.”