Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in South Korea on July 3 with a large business delegation and a mass of diplomatic and economic agreements. His visit likely will accelerate progress toward a China-South Korea free trade agreement and provide further incentives for increased bilateral investment and expanded trade. It will also strengthen China's ties with a key U.S. ally in the region.
Fewer than 22 years after Beijing officially opened diplomatic ties with Seoul, China has emerged as South Korea's largest trading partner. Now, Beijing often appears friendlier with Seoul than its traditional ally, Pyongyang. For its part, South Korea is increasingly hesitant to expand its trilateral defense coordination with the United States and Japan, partly out of concerns it might affect relations with China.
On the same day as Xi's visit to Seoul, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the easing of several Japanese sanctions against North Korea. This followed a series of meetings between the two countries regarding longstanding tensions caused by the North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. Tokyo lifted restrictions on Japanese nationals traveling to North Korea and raised the amount of money ethnic Koreans can send or take to North Korea without notifying the government. Tokyo also ended a policy prohibiting the re-entry of members of Chongryon, a pro-North Korea organization operating in Japan, after visiting North Korea. Japan has suggested that if North Korea makes further progress on the kidnapping issue, it would engage in talks on normalizing relations.
Although the two events appear unrelated, they reflect the rising competition between Japan and China and the critical position the Korean Peninsula holds in the power struggle between Northeast Asia's two main powers. China's economic expansion during the past three decades makes it more important for Beijing to gain prominence on the international stage to protect its resources, markets and expanding interests. This desire is causing China to re-evaluate its general policy of silence and is motivating the country to more overtly challenge larger powers. In China's near seas, Beijing has already abandoned its traditional relative pacifism, knowing that its current strength and the state of international relations provides it a need and an opportunity to assert its authority over the waters.
China's re-emergence has expedited Japan's own slow reawakening. After two decades of relative economic stagnation, Japan remains a significant component of the international economic system, but one whose role and influence is highly diluted by the rise of China and the reconfiguration of the global production and trade map. The end of the Cold War, followed by increased conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, has left Japan on the fringes of the U.S. defense architecture; before, they were at the forefront of U.S. attempts to keep the Soviets out of the Pacific. During the post-Cold War period, the United States called on its defense partners to take a greater role in cooperative efforts around the globe. But Japan's constitutional constraints, so beneficial earlier, left Japan at odds with the United States regarding its responsibilities and unable to use all its available tools to rebuild its influence abroad. China's natural evolution has provided the final stimulus to push Japan past its post-World War II constraints.
Between these two major regional powers, each competing for resources, markets, and maritime routes, sits the Korean Peninsula — often the loser in Sino-Japanese competitions. Geographically, the Korean Peninsula is not an ideal piece of land to occupy. It is too small and resource-poor to serve as the center of an expansive power and too difficult to defend when an aggressor makes landfall. Whether it was Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Japanese invasion in the late 16th century that plowed through North Korea, nearly reaching the Chinese border, or the North Korean, Chinese and U.S. forces that swept back and forth over the peninsula for months during the 1950s, the geography of Korea provides little in the way of securable defensive lines along the north-south axis. Korea makes a great highway, but not a strong position from which to launch expansionary activity, unless its land or maritime borders can be secured.
Historically, Korea has coped with this by remaining relatively isolationist, earning the moniker of the "Hermit Kingdom" long before the epithet was re-applied to North Korea under Kim Jong Il. So long as Korea paid nominal allegiance to the emperor of China, China was content to let Korea develop as it wished, and Korea focused inward. Occasionally, it had to confront Japanese or other maritime pirates, or horsemen from the northern steppes, but these events only reinforced Korea's determination to remain reclusive.
Though Korea could not become a meaningful power, save perhaps a few brief moments when China was fragmented, the peninsula was seen as the perfect invasion route between Japan and China. After the Mongols conquered China in the 13th century, they launched their fleets through Korea in a failed attempt to conquer Japan. When the Japanese unified at the end of the 16th century and turned their sights on the Chinese throne, they reached Beijing through Korea. When Japan emerged in the early 20th century as the Asian power most ready to adapt to and seek a claim within the system of Western imperialism, it was again via Korea that Japan set its sights on China. And when the Soviet Union and the United States first clashed in a proxy conflict at the dawn of the Cold War, Korea served as the focal point. Time and again history highlights the logic behind China's interest in Korea.
Although Japan and China are not lining up for the invasion of each other's territory, they are hesitant to let the other exert influence on the Korean Peninsula, lest they use their respective Korean ally against their rival. China does not want South Korea to further integrate into the U.S.-Japan alliance structure, particularly as Washington and Tokyo are clearly eyeing China as a country that needs to be contained. Tokyo does not want to see China use North Korea as a proxy to threaten and distract Japan from defending its interests in the East China Sea — interests that include expanding its economic, political and security relations into the South China Sea along key maritime routes. In this context, it seems much less ironic that a nationalist Japanese government is courting North Korea as a Communist Chinese government is courting South Korea.
This provides the two Koreas with a challenge and an opportunity. At this stage in the Sino-Japanese competition, both Koreas could gain concessions and incentives from their larger neighbors. For example, Seoul is likely to gain preferential terms on certain key components of the free trade agreement with China, and Pyongyang has already gained some easing of sanctions from Tokyo. Although Japan does not come close to replacing China in terms of trade importance, North Korea's flirtations with Tokyo may well spur China to counter with some of its own economic incentives. Because of the competition, both Koreas are seeing Russia and the United States become increasingly involved, giving Seoul and Pyongyang room to use competing interests for their own advantage. As the rivalries in the region heat up, there may be underlying pressures driving the Koreas toward unification, but this will be no easy task. Ultimately, a divided Korea leaves each part weak and exploitable by the larger players.