U.S.-China Talks Are a Wake-up Call for S.Korea

      July 30, 2009 12:37

      The U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that ended in Washington D.C. on Wednesday was a sobering reminder that the two countries will form the poles of global power in the 21st century. In his opening speech, U.S. President Barack Obama described China as Washington's most important partner.

      The two countries discussed global security issues, including North Korea's and Iran's nuclear program, the war in Afghanistan, problems in Pakistan, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa and the crisis in Darfur. It is becoming difficult for the U.S. to solve global problems without China's help. The two countries also agreed to join hands to overcome the global financial crisis by promoting an international financial system, resolving trade imbalances and dealing with the weak U.S. dollar. An agreement whereby China will contribute to stimulating the global economy by boosting its domestic consumption symbolizes the increasing importance of the Chinese economy in the world.

      China's decision to play a major role in dealing with climate change, which was an issue Beijing had opted to stay out of until now, reflects its willingness to take the lead in tackling the world's problems. The U.S. and China also agreed to resume high-level military talks within the next one or two months. China's military might is also growing rapidly. 

      The U.S.-China talks have a special meaning for Seoul because the two countries discussed in Seoul's absence vital problems in the Korean Peninsula. It would be unimaginable for the two countries to discuss issues involving the future of Japan, the U.K. or France in the absence of representatives from those countries, but issues of crucial importance to South Korea seem to follow different rules. This is the reality facing South Korea in the new bipolar world order.

      The U.S. and China discussed the North Korean nuclear crisis, but the matter cannot be resolved outside the context of broader issues on the Korean Peninsula. Trilateral talks between the U.S., China and Japan are also scheduled. It appears that after 100 years, South Korea's fate is once again being decided based on blueprints drawn up by other countries. And the hard truth is South Korea is not powerful enough to change this.

      North Korea's social and political systems are moribund, and unification can happen within 20 to 30 years at the latest. China's stance at that point will have a direct effect on the fate of the Korea Peninsula. Looking at Seoul-Beijing relations at the moment, it is not difficult to gauge what that stance would be. Unless there is a significant change in the Chinese outlook, the peninsula's future looks anything but rosy.

      It is true that the South Korea-U.S. alliance puts fundamental limitations on South Korea-China ties. But it is not entirely impossible for Seoul to build trust with Beijing while maintaining the alliance. Already, the economies of South Korea and China have grown inseparable. South Korea is China's third-largest trading partner. The "win-win" framework that is being created in the economic sphere can also be achieved in the political and military arenas. Nothing is impossible in bilateral relations. If connections deepen and the two countries grow closer, the day may come when Beijing decides that a unification of the Koreas led by the South would not harm China.

      Stressing the importance of continued dialogue, Obama quoted the Chinese philosopher Mencius in his opening speech, saying, "This is comparable to people walking on paths through grasslands. As long as people keep walking on the path, the path will remain there. If people don't walk on the path, weeds and grasses will grow back and obscure it." This probably best illustrates how South Korea must deal with China.

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