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Alliances in Asia: South Korea unlikely to be lost

Alliances in Asia: South Korea unlikely to be lost

'Washington, you're on your own' is the gist of a recent piece by Stephen Walt, who assesses that Europe would have no dog in an Asian fight and will therefore distance itself from the American's long list of troubles involving China.

This was underscored by Angela Merkel's recent visit to China, involving the usual mercantilist clutch of political-commercial deals and the pricelessly ironic scene of the German chancellor decrying American espionage alongside Premier Li Keqiang. A businessman in her entourage confided that 'the message from China is we are happy to engage with you guys but not the US.' Thus Beijing will play to European economic interests in order to foil its chief geopolitical rival. Might Beijing succeed in undermining America's alliances?

Here in Asia, there is heated debate about the durability of US alliances. Last week saw the visits by the Japanese prime minister to Australia and Chinese president Xi Jinping to South Korea (accompanied, inevitably, by a planeload of business people). Xi Jinping proposed 'a new Asian security architecture' devoid of US military treaties, which he called a 'Cold War relic.' American newspapers have seized on Beijing's intent to undermine and unravel the alliance system.

Nowhere is China's effort more apparent than in South Korea, which is highly dependent on China economically. The two countries certainly are clear on what they stand against — Japanese revisionism — something I hope Tony Abbott pondered during his feting of Shinzo Abe. But it is less clear whether Beijing and Seoul advocate the same objectives, for example on how to deal with North Korea. While the headlines trumpet Seoul's 'shift to Beijing', a more nuanced view is that Seoul is not yet looking to replace the US as its protector, but is working an 'inside game' to exert pressure on Japan and to shape future Korean reunification outcomes. [fold]

Undoubtedly, Seoul wishes to have an excellent relationship with China. In Asia, the term 'comprehensive and strategic partnerships' is thrown about quite a lot; indeed China has an elaborate categorisation of its relationships, which naturally are closely connected to trade and commercial ties. But economic ties alone do not an alliance make. Tellingly for Beijing, of the nations most resembling its allies — North Korea, Cambodia and Pakistan — each has extremely weak business sectors. So clearly there is much more to alliances than simply doing business together. Alliances are often forged in blood and have real historic and political symbolism. 

Ideally, there should also be shared communal values and trust. A poll by the Asan Institute shows roughly two-thirds of the South Korean public, though admiring and respectful of China, feels threatened by its rise in both security and economic terms; a full 90% expect that the 'US would help South Korea during war'. So while the US isn't universally popular in South Korea, it is a credible ally. And Angela Merkel may be genuinely furious about American spying, an embarrassment Chinese commentaries have long feasted upon, but she is angry precisely because the US is a close ally. Germans have few illusions about Russian and Chinese threats; nor do Merkel's spy chiefs.

Yan Xuetong, a Chinese realist counterpart of Stephen Walt, has long argued for China to create its own system of alliances, including with Russia (which, apparently, is increasingly esteemed by the Chinese public). Yan sees alliances as an affirmation of China's international legitimacy. He believes China should exercise 'humane authority' among nations and create its own network of followers. More bluntly, he sees the acquisition of allies as a contest with the Americans to lead the world order. This thinking in fact may become a keystone of Chinese foreign policy.

Will it succeed? The South Korean experience suggests Beijing is trying hard, yet will face real obstacles. In a recent Interpreter post, Andrew O'Neil notes that a 'realist' outcome has not thus far unfolded in Asia: most small and mid-sized states have neither bandwagoned with China nor overtly balanced against it. They haven't been asked to choose sides. They have instead all been hedging, manoeuvring for maximum advantage while avoiding commitment where possible.

The US alliance system in Asia is intact. It is neither being rolled back nor is it expanding, and independent smaller nations are still free to steer away from great power allegiance. As noted recently, this state of affairs is a luxury afforded by a relatively benign strategic environment. Long may it last.

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