Modi's Visit to Tokyo: A Snapshot of Japan-India Relations

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 by Kota Takahashi

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been working fervently to strengthen ties with countries outside of its direct neighborhood while relations with China and South Korea remain cool. A recent highlight of his diplomacy is newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-day visit to Japan from 30 August to 3 September. This visit was significant in multiple ways. Not only was it the longest visit by an Indian leader to Japan in years, but it was Modi’s first visit to states outside of its direct neighborhood since his elevation to Prime Minister in May. Prior to his visit, Modi’s official Twitter account even tweeted in eloquent Japanese, which received warm responses from the Japanese public. These episodes symbolize India’s willingness to reach out to Japan and underscore the mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries. However, a closer look at what came out of Modi’s visit shows that the reality is not so simple; there is a significant gap in the extent of bilateral cooperation in economics and security.
                 Modi’s visit brought about important outcomes to facilitate the underdeveloped economic relationship between Tokyo and New Delhi. According to the Japan External Trade Organization, bilateral trade between Japan and India amounted to only about 5% of that between Japan and China, and Japanese direct investment to India was only about one-fifth of that to China.  Abe’s announcement of his intention to pour in a total of USD$32.4 million in public and private investment and financing to India in the next five years was targeted to boost this lagging interaction.  Another important accomplishment in the economic dimension is investment projects directed to Indian infrastructure. India’s poor infrastructure—in which half of all roads are unpaved and 300 million people (roughly the same size as the U.S. population) live without access to electricity—is estimated to cost India as much as 2% of its GDP annually. On the flipside, accelerating the export of infrastructure has been the central agenda of Japan’s economic growth strategy, as seen in its ambitious goal of tripling infrastructure export totals by 2020. This match of supply and demand resulted in the agreement in which Japan will transfer USD$463.3 million to the India Infrastructure Finance Company Limited, along with around USD$144.6 million for the Guwahati Sewerage Project in Assam.
                Compared to these accomplishments in the economic sector, progress in the strategic and security dimensions remained at best symbolic. Though its negotiation was reignited in May last year, a nuclear cooperation deal between Japan and India is still yet to be signed. The bilateral framework between Japanese and Indian foreign and defense ministers (2+2) was not elevated to the ministerial level from the current vice-ministerial level. After months of prolonged negotiations—one Indian media source reported that “Japan is close to signing an agreement to supply amphibious planes to India” as early as May last year—talks about the Indian purchase of ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft from Japan remain inconclusive.
One of the rationales behind this is the difference between the two states in their relations with China. Japan’s relationship with China has been rocky due to territorial rivalry and historical animosity, so much so that their heads of state have not had a summit since they both came to power about two years ago. On the other hand, despite Modi’s swipe at China prior to meeting with Abe, New Delhi has few reasons to frustrate Beijing by forming an anti-Chinese coalition with its regional rival. Beijing was quick to grasp the opportunity to improve China-India relations, sending its Foreign Minister to India promptly after Modi’s electoral victory. Though India and China had a border spat in the same region last year, their relationship was relatively stable at the time of Modi’s trip to Japan. There has been little development in the Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy that some in the defense industry argue is intended to militarily encircle India. And most significantly, since Japan cannot unilaterally satisfy all of India’s investment demands, India needs stronger ties with China to accelerate economic development further. In short, there is a significant disparity between the two countries in how they assess the Chinese threat and its economic power.
                Of course, this does not mean that Japan and India cannot cooperate to achieve their national interests or that their ties are insignificant. There are numerous issues where the goals of both countries overlap and there is no doubt that Modi’s visit was a positive development. But the fact that both countries share certain values and interests does not directly translate into a strong political coalition between Japan and India, especially on critical and sensitive issues such as their relations with China. In this context, the recent standoff between India and China in the disputed region near Aksai Chin could work as a catalyst for bolstering Japan-India relations, but it remains to be seen how that will play out. 

China’s Economic Leverage in Hong Kong a Warning for Taiwan

Posted on Monday, October 27, 2014 by David Gitter

China's Economic Leverage in Hong Kong a Warning for Taiwan

By David Gitter

Image Credit: AP Photo/Xinhua, Rao Aimin

China’s position that Taiwan’s economic future lies with the Mainland is crystal clear, and has been a consistent message throughout recent years. In the run-up to Taiwan’s 2012 presidential election, Beijing leveraged a minority of Taiwanese pro-unification groups and think tank scholars to supplement its own assertion that Ma Ying-jeou’s plan for a “Golden Decade” was inseparable from the Mainland’s development, and specifically in line with the economic measures of Beijing’s 12th Five-Year Plan. This year on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang publically called on Taiwan to take full advantage of China’s economic growth, and offered Taipei first privileges to the Mainland’s development opportunities. Likewise, President Xi Jinping has stated that cross-strait economic integration will bring about mutually beneficial win-win results that should not be impeded.

Both Ma Ying-jeou and top Mainland officials have reiterated their support for an “economics first, politics later” approach to cross-strait relations, but the difference in perception of what the ultimate end-goal is makes economic integration a dangerous game for Taipei. Top Chinese Communist Party (CPP) leaders have cited the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) as one of many ways to develop cross-strait relations with peaceful reunification as the target objective. Such integration is viewed by Mainland Chinese in terms of laying a larger foundation for the step-by-step process towards achieving China’s reunification. At the CCP 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Hu Jintao stated that under the one country two systems rubric, both sides of the strait should deepen economic cooperation to increase common interests.

However, this may prove to be a problem for Taiwan if Beijing tries to leverage these common interests to achieve its own political ends which Taipei does not share. Taiwan’s leaders undoubtedly understand this danger, but they see a lack of alternative options for fear of being left out of Asia’s economic integration. This has created a convenient lever for Beijing, as Chinese leaders try to make Taiwan’s regional economic integration contingent upon furthering the cross-strait economic merger.  Even so, it is obvious that by playing along Taipei has secured some dividends. President Ma correctly notes that after signing ECFA, sudden progress was made in other bilateral trade deals with Singapore, New Zealand, Japan, and the European Union.

Despite these breakthroughs, Taipei must fully prepare for how Beijing may use the growing cross-strait economic lever to pressure Taiwan into political concessions. Taiwanese scholars have pointed to how CCP leaders are using economic ties to garner influence in Hong Kong, drawing cogent parallels between the 2003 Mainland-Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) and the more recent cross-strait service trade agreement. CEPA allowed the Mainland to become Hong Kong’s largest trading partner. As economic dependency on the Mainland grew, Beijing fostered considerable informal control through contacts with business leaders in the special administrative region. The CCP has long called for “using business people to pressure politicians.” Notably, Hong Kong business tycoons were rewarded with membership and honorary titles in the CCP’s comprehensive united front entity, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Now as foreign governments and the United Nations Human Rights Committee voice their support for Hong Kong protesters’ demand for free elections, many of the city’s own business magnets with vested interests have publically opposed the movement as disruptive to the territory’s prosperity following a closed-door meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing. Given the CCP’s consistent use of united front tactics such as “aligning friendly forces” in the push for national reunification, it is only logical to assume that when Beijing feels its economic leverage is sufficient, Chinese leaders may increasingly call upon Taiwan’s business moguls to parrot its cause.

Hong Kong’s example demonstrates that Taipei must guard against China’s strategy of utilizing cross-strait economic manipulation to achieve political goals. In order to protect itself, Taipei must ramp up a considerable economic reform agenda that includes aggressively pursuing regional free trade agreements. In addition to helping diversify Taiwan’s economic partners, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be instrumental in driving domestic economic reform and have a positive impact on productivity and competitiveness. Taipei should also recognize growing evidence that China’s economy may be headed for future troubles similar to Japan’s financial crisis in the 1990s, making diversification all the more important. As the Mainland’s neighbors become disillusioned with Beijing’s coercive foreign policy and seek to minimize their own economic dependence on China, new opportunities may take shape for Taiwan with other Asian states. Taiwan should seek to capitalize on these favorable circumstances, and build new lucrative relations independent from cross-strait integration.

After Hong Kong, Macau?

Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 by David Gitter

After Hong Kong, Macau?

By David Gitter

After Hong Kong, Macau?

Image Credit: 
Macau via
If you asked someone to describe the culture of Chinese gambling hub Macau, political awareness would hardly be the first attribute to come to mind. But as Hong Kong’s people defy Beijing and keep hope alive for universal suffrage through protracted protests – which appeared to reignite overnight after talks with Hong Kong authorities failed – China’s other special administrative region is not immune to the allure of democratic concepts coming from across the Pearl River Estuary. As Hong Kong’s influence supplements new homegrown political and labor activism, the stage may be set for Macau’s own grassroots democracy movement.
Macau’s people first showed signs of a political awakening of its own in May 2014, when mass rallies forced the region’s chief executive to forfeit a controversial bill. The measure would have provided extravagant retirement packages for top officials and given the serving Macau chief executive immunity from criminal charges. In response, as many as 20,000 of Macau’s half a million citizens surrounded the territory’s legislature and demanded that the idea be scrapped, forcing Chief Executive Dr. Fernando Chui Sai On to heed their call. Many took time off from work to participate, realizing for the first time that political activism can lead to improved governance. As casino worker Ada Pun explained, before Macau’s people saw their Hong Kong counterparts as troublesome, “But this time, the Macau government is testing our bottom line … and we finally realised we could make a change if we stood united.” Rally organizer Sulu Sou Ka-hou called the abandonment of the unpopular bill a victory, but maintained that, “at the end of the day, the problem today stems from the undemocratic political system we have.”
The political influence of Hong Kong is also apparent. The city’s ongoing political unrest seems to have emboldened many Macau residents to take up the mantle of universal suffrage as well. This June, after Beijing dismissed as “illegal” Hong Kong’s unofficial referendum on democracy, which turned out 800,000 voters, Macau held its own unofficial referendum on the same question. This took place even as Macau’s own leader was “reelected” by the territory’s pro-Beijing election committee in a one-horse race. Of the nearly 9,000 people who cast their ballot, 89 percent cast a vote of no confidence in their chief executive, and 95 percent said they would prefer their leadership to be chosen through direct elections.
As it happens, this period of dissatisfaction with the political system is overlapping with a period of labor empowerment. On October 3, hundreds of dealers from MGM’s flagship casino went on strike to demand better wages and benefits, following a summer trend of large-scale labor demonstrations. A Morgan Stanley report projects continued labor shortages and increased casino employee bargaining power for several years to come, which may mean increased labor activism during this time. All of this coincides with ongoing political turbulence before Hong Kong’s chief executive election in 2017, which is already having a strong impact on Macau’s political consciousness.
This fusion of drivers over an extended period of time may very well create favorable conditions for massive political demonstrations, supported by Macau labor. It is important to remember that in China, workers have supported calls for democracy before. Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a perfect example of labor marching in support of political rights. In Hong Kong’s current protests, as many as 10,000 workers from all labor sectors have shown solidarity with the Occupy Central movement, adding further legitimacy to their political cause. The workers of Macau may eventually feel inspired to do the same as they witness their Hong Kong compatriots turning out by the thousands to support political freedoms.
For now, the people of Macau will likely look on from afar as the political future of Hong Kong plays out. Even so, Beijing and the world should not simply dismiss Macau’s people as apolitical in orientation, as they soon may gamble that the time to try their luck at democracy has arrived.
David Gitter is a research intern at the Project 2049 Institute. This article was originally published in the Diplomat on October 11, 2014. 

Taiwan, Asia's Secret Air Power

Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 by Samuel J. Mun

Taiwan, Asia’s Secret Air Power

By Ian Easton

Image Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

No other democratic country in the world faces a more dangerous threat picture. Here’s what Taiwan is doing to ensure its air defense and why it matters for the United States and the region.  

When current and former world leaders, including Bill Clinton, visit Taiwan, they often stay at the Grand Hotel Taipei, an opulent Chinese architectural landmark perched on top of Yuan Mountain. With spectacular views of the downtown riverfront and a palm-lined swimming pool surrounded by lush green jungle, guests at the Grand Hotel could be forgiven for thinking they had arrived at one of the most peaceful spots in East Asia. In fact, just under their feet lies a vast underground command center from which Taiwan’s top leadership would direct their nation’s armed forces in the event of a war with China. This facility, like many around the high-tech island, shows that when it comes to the defense of Taiwan, there is much more than meets the eye.

Known officially as the Tri-Service Hengshan Command Center, the sprawling tunnel facility stretches through the mountain in a line that starts near the Grand Hotel and goes down to the giant Ferris wheel in Dazhi. Built to defend against China’s growing fleet of ballistic missiles, this hardened nerve center is designed to allow Taiwan’s government (and thousands of military personnel) to live and work for months, riding out air raids above while organizing the defense of Taiwan from below.

Linked to a large network of subterranean command posts and military bases around Taiwan and its outer islands–as well as the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii–the Hengshan Command Center is the ultimate redoubt for Taiwan’s president. It is so important, in fact, that China’s strategic rocket force, the Second Artillery, has actually simulated missile attacks on the bridges that connect it to the Presidential Office.

On the other side of the city, buried inside a wet rocky outcropping near the campus of National Taiwan University, lies another tunnel complex, the Air Operations Center. Known affectionately as “Toad Mountain” by Taiwanese air force officers, this facility oversees one of the most robust air and missile defense networks on the planet. Fed vast quantities of information by airborne early-warning aircraft, long-range radars, listening posts, unmanned aerial vehicles, and satellites, Toad Mountain stands constant watch over all of Taiwan’s airspace, ready to scramble fighters or assign surface-to-air missiles to intercept intruders. And, like every other Taiwanese military facility, it has multiple back-ups. Just in case.

One of those back-ups is located on Taiwan’s east coast inside Chiashan or “Optimal Mountain”, not far from the mouth of a gorge cut through pure white marble. Unlike the gorge, however, no tourists are allowed inside this billion dollar bunker complex. According to first-person accounts, the base is an entire military city built inside a hollowed-out mountain. Not only does it have space inside for parking, arming, and repairing over two hundred fighter aircraft, it also has its own hospital and multiple gas stations serving jet fuel. With ten blast doors that exit out to multiple runways via a long taxiway that can itself be used as an emergency runway, it may be toughest airbase ever built.

Ninety miles down the coastline, Taiwan’s air force, ROCAF, is further bolstered by the Shihzishan or “Stone Mountain” complex at Chihhang Air Base. Though somewhat smaller than Chiashan, its labyrinthine tunnels can still shelter some eighty aircraft. Both of these facilities benefit from their strategic locations on the far side of the highest mountain range in East Asia. Missiles fired from the Chinese mainland can’t reach them–they would smash into the side of the mountains before they got there.

For this reason Taiwan regularly practices dispersing its fighter jets from vulnerable west coast bases to airfields on the east coast. Units are also moved between bases to make it difficult to predict where they might be at any given time, and dummy aircraft are parked on tarmacs and inside shelters to confuse enemy intelligence.

To further mitigate the threat of a knock-out Chinese missile strike on its airfields, Taiwan’s air force maintains five emergency highway strips where it can land, refuel, rearm, and launch fighters in the event that nearby runways are cratered. In addition, each Taiwanese airbase has large engineering units attached to it with ample stocks of equipment for rapidly repairing runways. Clocking in at four hours, Israel’s Self Defense Force used to have the world speed record in the runway repair game. No longer. Earlier this year a team of Taiwanese sappers beat that record by an hour.

Facing an existential threat from China and its much larger military, these are just a few of many examples of how Taiwan’s military is using quality to offset its quantitative shortcomings. Whether or not Taiwan can pull it off could hardly be more important for the United States and the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

Indeed, if the contest of the century is to be waged between the U.S. and China for primacy in the Pacific, Taiwan will be the center of the action. Look at any map and it should quickly become apparent why.  Taiwan sits at the crossroads between the East and South China Seas, within torpedo range of the world’s most heavily trafficked sea lines.  Not only critical for bottling the Chinese navy up inside the first island chain–and thereby protecting Japan and the Philippines from the threat of naval blockade–Taiwan also plays a leading role in the air.

With China fielding ballistic missiles for targeting U.S. aircraft carrier groups in the Western Pacific and Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, Taiwan’s defenses matter more now than ever. Chinese missiles would have to go through Taiwan’s airspace on the way to their targets. With the right combination of high-powered ballistic missile defense radars and interceptors, Taiwan can serve as a shield to protect deployed American forces during a contingency.

This potential was inadvertently revealed in late 2012 when North Korea launched a long-range rocket into the Philippine Sea. At the time, Taiwan’s new ultra high frequency (UHF) radar system was able to track the missile and provide the U.S. and Japanese warships with 120 seconds of extra warning time–an eternity in the short life of a hypersonic missile flight.      
For this reason and many others, China’s communist party leadership in Beijing continues to see Taiwan as its most worrisome external political and diplomatic problem.  Viewed by Beijing as the Chinese world’s first liberal democracy, Taiwan’s remarkable political success story casts China’s oppressive system in an unfavorable comparative light.

To combat what it thinks is a grave political threat, Beijing’s strategy has been to employ a combination of coercive and cooperative measures to isolate (and eventually subjugate) Taiwan. The most prominent aspect of China’s strategy is its missile build-up, which aims to intimidate the voters in Taiwan and policymakers in the United States.   

Yet without the ability to dominate the air domain, any Chinese attempt to blockade or invade Taiwan would be disastrous.  This may explain why China’s amphibious fleet has not grown by a single ship since 2007.  It makes little sense for any navy to spend limited resources on ships that could be sunk at the outset of war.

However, the air and missile threat to Taiwan, and by extension the United States, is very real and growing fast. China’s Second Artillery Force has developed and tested a ballistic missile warhead for targeting airfield runways with penetrating cluster munitions. At the same time, China has been able to convince two successive U.S. administrations (and three French Presidents) to freeze the sale of new fighters jets to Taiwan, leading to a widening fighter gap in the Taiwan Strait.

Without new F-16 or Mirage-2000 fighters, Taiwan knows that it may soon find itself overwhelmed in the air even though its pilots are far better trained than their mainland adversaries. In an air war quality may be the most important factor, but quantity matters a lot too. Fortunately, Taiwan’s government appears to be making serious progress on developing its own indigenous means of undercutting China’s growing missile and air forces. While Taiwan will be hard pressed to ensure that it always has cross-Strait air superiority, it can easily deny the same to China. By developing and fielding a number of world-class capabilities to survive missile strikes and keep enemy aircraft from freely operating in its airspace, Taiwan may have broken the code on deterring Chinese aggression.

Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. This article was originally published in the Diplomat on September 25, 2014.  

Roots of Turmoil in Xinjiang: The Socioeconomic Divide between Uyghurs and Han Chinese

Posted on Friday, June 27, 2014 by Liana Tai

The Second Central Work Forum on Xinjiang (East Turkestan) was held in May of this year, amidst a surge in protest and violent attacks by some segments of the Uyghur people that have been publicly labeled as a “religious separatist movement” by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Prominent Xinjiang scholar James Liebold notes that the Party’s acknowledgement of a need for change in policy is not explicitly stated in the dialogue of the Work Forum, yet seems to be signified by both the timing of the meeting and changes in rhetoric. As stated in China Daily, “[the CCP’s] strategy is proven to be correct and must be continued in the long run.” However, they must also “update [their] policies to Xinjiang’s current situations.”The First Central Work Forum was held in 2010 and its purpose had been to chart a five-year plan for economic prosperity and stability. As a whole, the region has prospered economically. However, the core of instability lies in the question of who has – and who has not -- prospered from the region’s growth. Four factors of the socioeconomic divide between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese in Xinjiang reveal the deeper causes of unrest in the region.

First is the lack of engagement of Uyghur locals in the CCP’s creation and implementation of economic policies in their own region. The top-down, state-led approach to economic development has engaged primarily high-level government and military officials and even experts from other regions, many of whom are unfamiliar and disconnected with the local conditions in Xinjiang and the needs of its people. It is therefore no surprise that Uyghurs are at a disadvantaged position to benefit from the fruit of these development policies. As the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) notes, “continuing marginalization and alienation of Uyghurs from the benefits of economic growth in East Turkestan and in China, as well as the cycle of security crackdowns, is ultimately contrary to the interests of stability in the region and appears only likely to feed resentment of the kind that has led to the unrest of July 2009.”

Second, the mass in-migration of Han Chinese into Xinjiang province (both state-sponsored and self-initiated) has also had a tremendous impact on the prospects of economic growth for Uyghur groups. While the Han Chinese comprised just 6 percent of Xinjiang’s population in 1949, they represented 39 percent of its people by 2010. Originally, migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang was supported by the state in an effort to increase Beijing’s influence in that region. Additionally, Beijing wanted a larger Han population to facilitate negotiations with foreign oil companies and develop Western China as a bridge with Central Asia. Recently, there has been a greater self-initiated move on the part of Han Chinese to migrate to Xinjiang for new economic opportunities presented by a higher rate of urbanization and growth in the region. Often, these migrants do not have a high level of education and are willing to accept low wages. This has exacerbated the Uyghurs’ inability to access jobs, even those at the bottom end of the economic scale.   

Third, one of the most significant factors underlying the growing socioeconomic divide between Uyghurs and Han Chinese is the disproportionate growth resulting from “leapfrog development,” a term at the forefront of objectives during the First Central Work Forum on Xinjiang in 2010. As part of promoting “leapfrog development,” the Chinese government has increasingly promoted the privatization of state-owned enterprises and opened the economy to market forces. According to a study by the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, this transition has fostered greater opportunities for business development and economic growth in Xinjiang; however, the benefits of that growth have accrued to Han locals and Han migrants in the region, squeezing Uyghurs increasingly into self-employment.

The only segment of the economy where Uyghurs’ earnings are on a par with those of the Han Chinese is in the government sector, reflecting the state’s direct role in promoting “ethnic equality.” In contrast, ethnic inequality is greatest in those segments of the economy where the state is no longer playing a major role. Han locals and migrants are more likely to work in both public and private enterprises than Uyghurs.  Uyghurs have very little representation in the private sector outside of informal trade. Since the private sector (albeit still small) is the area where employment prospects are growing most rapidly, it is no wonder that Uyghurs feel a sense of frustration and disillusionment.

Lastly, the spatial distribution of ethnic groups is equally divided in Xinjiang. The Han Chinese live predominately in the urbanized northeast part of the region, the focal point of state investment and industrial development, as well as the hub of the region’s growing private sector activity. In contrast, the Uyghurs live primarily in southwest Xinjiang, a region that is far more rural and agricultural. As a result, the wealth generated by the “leapfrog development” initiative, primarily by Han-owned enterprises, is geographically separated from the Uyghurs as well.

The “leapfrog development” policy that was previously at the forefront of CCP objectives in Xinjiang was barely mentioned at the Second Central Work Forum. Economic development remains an important priority, yet this shift in terminology could signify Beijing’s recognition that lessening government involvement in the economy is not conducive to promoting stability in the region. While specific changes in Xinjiang policy remain to be seen, President Xi Jinping’s call for “walls made of copper and steel” and “nets spread from the earth to the sky” to address instability in the region suggest that the reins on a top-down, state-led approach will only be drawn tighter in the future. And, with this approach, the stability that the Party wishes for will remain little more than a wish. 

South Korea-China Relations: Limits of the “Strategic Cooperative Partnership”

Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 by Samuel J. Mun

Over the past two decades, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have developed a “strategic cooperative partnership” reflected through a sharp increase in bilateral trade, security dialogues, and more recently, frequent discussions on China’s potential role in addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. However, while the ROK-PRC partnership is at a historic high point, this relationship faces significant obstacles. These limitations in their ties reinforce the paramount importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance in face of a belligerent North Korea and rising China.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s state visit to China in 2013 demonstrated the immense progress made in ROK-PRC relations since the two countries normalized ties in 1992. Today, South Korea’s trade volume with China has grown to exceed its bilateral trade with the United States and Japan combined, and negotiations for a South Korea-China free trade agreement by 2015 were prioritized during the summit between President Park and President Xi. The two leaders also agreed to establish a high-level security dialogue between Seoul and Beijing and issued a joint-statement calling for the denuclearization of North Korea.

South Korea’s interest in building its partnership with China also goes beyond economic ties and China’s apparent leverage in reining in North Korea. Another source of overlap and agreement between Seoul and Beijing is their shared discord with Japan, against whom they share historical animosities related to Japan’s colonial and wartime legacies in the first half of the 20th century. For example, China’s opening of an exhibition (a request made by Park during her 2013 state visit to China) commemorating Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean who assassinated the first Japanese overseer of colonial Korea, showed further ROK-PRC alignment despite U.S. efforts to promote cooperation between Japan and South Korea.

Although political and economic ties between Seoul and Beijing are warm, decision-makers in Seoul must remain cognizant of Beijing’s strategic goals in the region that are inherently antithetical to South Korea’s security interests. In other words, Chinese efforts to alter the regional status quo and undermine the U.S.-led security architecture in Northeast Asia hinder South Korea’s ability to defend itself from North Korea, which remains an existential threat to South Korea.

China’s efforts to stifle South Korea’s cooperation with the United States—South Korea’s sole security guarantor for over 60 years—highlights the limits of the South Korea-China relationship. For example, in response to annual U.S.-ROK joint military drills intended to increase deterrence against North Korea and improve interoperability, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying asserted that “China is opposed to any move that may result in tensions in the region, whether they be joint drills or the threat of conducting nuclear tests.” Furthermore, at a conference this month in Shanghai, Xi Jinping warned against the strengthening of alliances in the region. And while Xi did not mention the United States, it was clear that he was in part referring to U.S. efforts to improve trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

It is this very mechanism, however, that directly lends to greater deterrence and preparedness against North Korean provocations and bellicosity. U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral coordination in anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare, and ballistic missile defense will be critical in a military contingency on the Korean peninsula. South Korea and China may empathize with each other’s experience under Japanese colonial rule, but South Korea’s security environment demands that it coordinate more closely with the United States and Japan on security issues. Such coordination is salient particularly for scenarios where the United States will launch operations on and around the Korean peninsula from its bases in Japan.

To what extent will South Korea continue to build ties with China? Public opinion polls by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies from March 2014 indicate that “70.4% of South Koreans [state] that Korea should strengthen the alliance with the United States to check China,” and “53.4% agreed that Korea should strengthen the alliance with the United States even at the risk of making China uncomfortable.” The polling data also suggests that warm South Korea-China ties may not necessarily translate into substantial security cooperation, as China’s reluctance to condemn North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean corvette, Cheonan, and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 are not too distant memories for South Koreans who sought China’s support in censuring North Korea.

As the United States rebalances to the Asia-Pacific in response to China's rise, South Korea’s proverbial status as a “shrimp among whales” is increasingly relevant. Despite Seoul’s recent political and economic leanings toward Beijing, divergent regional security interests reveal clear limits in how far South Korea can balance toward China. Conversely, the U.S.-ROK alliance since 1953 has deterred war on the Korean peninsula and evolved into a “global partnership” rooted in shared values and strategic interests. As such, the U.S.-ROK alliance will remain the indispensable element to South Korea’s security and prosperity for the foreseeable future.

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