China plays the South Korea card
President Xi's trip to Seoul was undoubtedly an attempt to isolate Japan. It won't work.

Article Highlights

  • After Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to South Korea last week, "Beijingology" is in full swing.

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  • As with the Soviet Union, today's China is often a blank palimpsest to its readers.

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  • Analysts should refrain from reading too much into President Xi's trip to Seoul last week.

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After Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to South Korea last week, "Beijingology" is in full swing. Analysts are trying to interpret the tea leaves of his visit. Is he showing anger toward North Korea? Driving a wedge between Japan and South Korea? Is he responding to U.S. pressure?

Such speculation is as unhelpful as it was during the dark days of the Cold War, when Americans studied Soviet leaders' every move in an attempt to understand their motives and goals, a strategy known as "Kremlinology." As with the Soviet Union, today's China is often a blank palimpsest to its readers, who impose whatever interpretation of Beijing's motives and goals suits them.

The very existence of Beijingology is a healthy reminder that even as China has become the world's second largest economy, the Chinese Communist Party continues to control information and limits its cooperative relations with outside states. Still, analysts should refrain from reading too much into President Xi's trip to Seoul last week. 

They are undoubtedly right that Mr. Xi wants to use his relationship with South Korean President Park Geun-hye to further pressure and isolate Japan. Yet there is very likely a limit to how far Ms. Park will go in her outreach to China. Seoul remains committed to the U.S. alliance, in no small part because Washington is the only realistic counterweight to Beijing's growing strength.

A recent poll indicated that 70% of South Koreans consider China's rise and power a threat to their country. And, despite deep historical anger and hatred toward Japan, South Korean officials know that democratic (and aging) Japan poses less of a threat than a revisionist China.

On top of all that, Seoul realizes it must to some degree work with Japan, since both are key allies of the United States. Any U.S. action to protect South Korea from the North would also involve U.S. bases in Japan.

As for North Korea, Mr. Xi is hardly sending a message to Kim Jong Un by visiting Seoul before Pyongyang. It is no secret that China has long found North Korea's behavior as infuriating and unpredictable as the rest of Asia.

There is, however, no indication that Beijing is seriously rethinking its support for Mr. Kim's rogue regime. Pyongyang continues to play a crucial role in absorbing U.S. strength and attention in Asia and in keeping Washington, Seoul and Tokyo off-balance, all of which appears to be valued by China's leaders.

China will continue to support North Korea for the same reason it does Russia, Iran and Syria. It chooses to align itself with rogue regimes, revisionist powers and disruptive actors. It sees its interests aligning more with those who try to destabilize global stability rather than those who try to maintain peace. When Beijing no longer supports dangerous actors around the globe, it will no longer support North Korea. That day, however, is far from coming.

In light of Mr. Xi's visit to South Korea, it is incumbent on Washington and Tokyo to deepen their own relations with Seoul. That has been particularly difficult for Japan of late. But both President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should be stressing the future of relations, not just the past.

It is manifestly in Seoul's self-interest to firmly align itself with a liberal bloc in Asia. Yet it is also up to Japan to do more to reach out to Seoul as a potential partner, for example by including it in plans for liberal multilateral approaches to security cooperation that so far have focused almost exclusively on India and Australia. Tokyo must emphasize that Seoul is a valued part of a liberal community for South Korea to feel a shared set of values with Japan. Given Ms. Park's antipathy toward Mr. Abe, Washington should not only encourage him to improve relations, it should throw its weight behind any Japanese initiative to do so.

The future of Asia will not be determined by one, or 10, state visits by any leader to any country. Instead, it is the steady work of creating liberal communities of interest to maintain regional norms that will create opportunities for prosperity and stability in coming decades.


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