Beijing is losing patience with its troublesome client state North Korea, demonstrated by Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul at the start of this month before ever stepping on North Korean soil so far in his presidency or extending an invitation to Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un to visit Beijing.
In a telling exchange, Tian Guoli, chairman of the Bank of China, who was along for the trip, described China and Korea as “close neighbors like a mouth and tongue.” That is almost a blasphemous reworking of Mao Zedong’s famed words defining the partnership with the North Korean ally – as like “lips and teeth.”
That doesn’t mean Beijing is going to give up on a client state that has served as a useful buffer blocking US influence for more than five decades. During the Korean War (1950-1953), China sided with the North, losing 114,000 soldiers in action with another 70,000 dying of wounds. Some 25,000 remain missing, a total loss of more than 200,000 of China’s young men.
Nonetheless, the Chinese leader was obviously courting a potential ally and isolating the US, renewing and empowering bilateral exchanges and launching a public attack on the rebellious North. Without bothering with the traditional flattery doled out to Pyongyang by past Chinese leaders, Xi met his counterpart Park Geun-hye without ever acknowledging the North.
Moreover, it was the second meeting by Park and Xi since the Korean head of state visited China the previous summer. Kim Jong-un, who took over the country at his father's death two years ago, has yet to receive an official invitation from Beijing. a potent snub, given the longstanding relationships between the two countries.
Today Pyongyang is deeply connected to Beijing for 90 percent of its economy, but the reopening of nuclear programs and the latest North Korean missile provocations right before Xi's visit to the south definitely cooled Beijing towards its protégé. Therefore although diplomatic relations with Seoul date back only to the 1990s, the ROK and the PRC are getting closer to the eventual pursuit of a common objective: denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Still, if the objective is clear, agreement on the methods is not, with China impatient for a reopening of the six-party talks in limbo since 2009, while South Korea and the US demand serious signs of the north’s goodwill in dropping any atomic ambition. Around mid-June, Liu Jianchao, an aide to the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister, pointed out that there is no military alliance between China and North Korea.
However, there is deep concern that a stricter attitude towards the fragile and impoverished Kim regime might cause it to implode, with a subsequent massive wave of refugees crossing the border into China. The Chinese dragon is committed maintaining the trading relations that keep the North afloat. Sanctions aside, Beijing has promised three high-speed railway lines connecting northeastern Chinese cities to the “last iron curtain,” with millions of dollars allocated to border-area bridges and street projects, along with the first cross-border power lines.
The state-owned Chinese press agency Xinhua commented recently on events: “The crucial point of the current situation in the Korean peninsula depends on mutual mistrust and hatred between the US and the DPRK. The counterproductive obsession of Washington for sanctions and intimidation, and the understandable feeling of insecurity in Pyongyang, as well as the pointless violations to the UN's resolutions, only managed to aggravate the hostilities.”
Washington thus seems to have been the real “stone guest” in Xi's two-day visit to Seoul as Beijing seeks to reorganize the system of alliances that the Unites States has built in the region. The circumstances look excellent, given the increased understanding with South Korea – which still hosts about 30,000 US troops.
There is also common impatience about Washington's most important Asia-Pacific ally, Japan, and its growing militarism. There is continuing anger over Japanese WWII atrocities. Added to that, Japan is revising its pacifist constitution, stirring concern in both Beijing and Seoul. Aside from that there is the rapprochement between Japan and North Korea over the ancient issue of kidnaped Japanese citizens. The Japanese government relaxed some sanctions inflicted on Pyongyang after the third nuclear test in exchange for a re-examination of the case.
Luckily for Beijing, relations between Seoul and Tokyo continue rocky, sometimes taking unforeseen turns as in 2010, when 37 members of the South Korean parliament created a forum to promote territorial claims on the Japanese island of Tsushima (Daema-do in Korean). Seoul also has issues with Tokyo over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, militarily occupied by Seoul in 1952. Japan claims them as part of the district of Oki, belonging to the town of Okinoshima.
Still, even after decades of American reminders, Seoul's defense expenses are still only 2.5-3 percent of GDP, basically making South Korea a “vassal depending upon the US” according to author Edward Luttwak. The great hostility of the South Korean left wing towards an increased military budget rules out any short-run reinvigoration of the army.
This doesn't mean relations between Beijing and Seoul are obstacle- free. Although there are no particularly urgent loose ends, the proximity of South Korea to the troubled waters of the South China Sea could easily lead to incidents. In 2011 aSouth Korean Coast Guardsman was killed and another seriously injured in a fight with Chinese fishermen over illegal activities in South Korean waters.
More recently, China announced without previous notice an Air Defense Identification Zone that overlaps ones from Seoul and Tokyo, triggering irritation from South Korea, which promptly expanded its own ADIZ to reach the disputed waters around the submerged rock known as Ieodo in Korean and Suyan in Mandarin. The timing was crucial since Beijing’s the unilateral move came just months after the first meeting between Xi and Park, greeted by experts as a “significant step forward in bilateral relations.”
Even if the Japanese historical revisionism ended up bringing South Korea and China closer, some schoolbooks still upset relations. These are frictions dating back to the beginning of the last century when China claimed some Korean dynasties were mere offshoots of their own Chinese ones.
Recently Beijing expressed its displeasure at Washington's proposal to provide South Korea with a new advanced missilistic defense system, officially conceived to contrast possible attacks from the North, but by implication meant to respond to China’s growing military aggressiveness. Seoul announced it would decide once the official proposal has been received from the US.
Even against these disagreements, the popular perception is that bilateral relations are progressing well. According to a survey published last week by Korea’s Joongang Daily, only 34.89 percent of South Korean adults believe the People's Republic of China would take North Korea’s side if a second Korean War broke out. In 2012, during Lee Myung-bak’s administration, 75.9 percent of Koreans surveyed believed China would back Pyongyang.
As in every partnership, what keeps parts together is business. In a July 4 speech at the Seoul National University, Xi invited the ROK to “forge together a new community of shared interests.” Bilateral exchanges reached US$270 billion last year, more than the combined South Korea total with the US and Japan.
The ROK is thus growing more dependent on Beijing, its first commercial partner for human resources and exports. Samsung's recent decision to invest US$7 billion to build a research center in Xi'an signifies South Korea's interest in China’s growing middle class, deeply interested in quality brands.
Jin Bosong, researcher of the Ministry of Economy, pointed at the potential of a “marriage” between South Korean electronics and Chinese e-commerce and e-business, of which Alibaba and Baidu are by now world leaders. Xi travelled with Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Baidu’s Li Yanhong. He was also accompanied by the presidents of China Telecom, China Unicom and the Bank of China, in what was defined as the most impressive business forum ever held between the two Asian nations, with 500 officials and representatives of the main societies from both countries.
Of 12 cooperative agreements, the most valuable was direct trading between the two local currencies, a great step forward towards internationalization of the yuan, with the promise of closing of negotiations for a free trade agreement, a first step towards an FTA expanded with Japan’s participation.
Alessandra Colarizi is an Italian sinologist and is the co-founder at L'Indro. She is also an editor and translator for China Files.