We desperately need to call a timeout. We must examine why the Chinese leadership takes us for such a weak contender. Last week, the Chinese chief of general staff, Chen Bingde, played foul on the diplomatic field. He accused the United States of being an imperialist bully in a meeting with visiting South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, criticizing joint military exercises with Vietnam and the Philippines. He publicly lambasted a close friend of his guest to his face.
The Chinese government is making a habit of turning its nose up at Korea. It has been blatantly pushing South Korea around. It is less domineering with other neighbors like North Korea and Vietnam. It’s not simply a case of socialist countries sticking together. Those two countries can make trouble when dealt with in a bruising manner.
China is engaged in a tense sparring match with Vietnam over territorial claims in the South China Sea. China tried to intimidate Vietnam with its military might, but Vietnam didn’t flinch. Its elder leaders urged the Vietnamese government to stand firm against China because protecting sovereignty should be the nation’s priority.
China has had unpleasant experiences with Vietnam. It was defeated in a territorial war with Vietnam in 1979. Vietnam prevailed with both its arms and its will to win and has been clashing with China for many years. China subconsciously keeps the past in mind when dealing with Vietnam.
China is the primary patron of North Korea. It supports the country’s hopeless economy. But North Korea is not one to take orders, even from its biggest benefactor. When China nags on economic reform, it responds in its own, cool style. A senior North Korean official once told South Korean officials that China could not be trusted and that its leaders were two-faced.
Vietnam and North Korea are unpredictable and erratic in their behavior toward the outside world. They startle the international world with diplomatic and military stunts. They are able to muster their people against the outside world. They bare their fangs when provoked. They are particular about issues of sovereignty. They mix strategic ambiguity and resolve, and that has been effective. It is a wise survival strategy for small countries.
South Korea scores high on international lists of economic and military power. North Korea and Vietnam are no match. Yet South Korea is regularly insulted by China. The Chinese are experts in diplomacy. They employ a subtle mix of cordiality and contempt. This almost always takes South Korea off guard. We may have brought on ourselves such poor diplomatic treatment.
South Korea’s diplomatic approach to China has been tormented. It’s a muddled jumble of principle and pragmatism. Many countries protested against Beijing’s hard-line crackdown against Tibet during the torch relay ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008. Human rights activists rallied in Seoul. In response, more than a thousand Chinese students in Korea held protests against the anti-Chinese sentiment. Such demonstrations by foreigners was unprecedented. But Korean law enforcement authorities dealt with the students lightly, fearing a bad reaction from China.
The government should have clearly distinguished diplomacy from law and order. It should have used stern police action against the protesters and later let them go as a diplomatic favor. But the authorities were neither consistent nor clear. They were equally incompetent in dealing with illegal Chinese trawlers. Chinese fishermen attacked South Korean maritime police with steel pipes and batons when they were caught illegally fishing in Korean waters. Yet the government released them without a trial.
The Lee Myung-bak government is proud of its pragmatism in foreign affairs. Practicality without principles, however, could undermine national interests. Gutless, pragmatic diplomacy is bound to give other countries a simple message: The Korean government is feeble and gullible.
In six-party negotiations, Seoul again belly-flopped. It begged Beijing to pressure Pyongyang during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. I remember one veteran Chinese journalist saying, “I cannot understand Korean leaders. The South has strong leverage against the North. Why doesn’t it use its economic and military power against the North? South Koreans know North Koreans best. Why rely so much on China?”
We undermined our own status by depending too much on China. China is the host of the six-party talks. It wants to weaken and eventually breakup the South Korea-U.S. alliance. It will continue relentlessly until it achieves the goal. South Korea’s relationship with China must be based on a mix of practicality and principles. Diplomatic dignity and national interests will triumph when we stand firm on principles.
*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon