There was much handwringing in Washington at the sight of South Korean President Park Geun-hye standing with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing at the Victory Day celebrations on September 3, 2015. Park was the only head of state from a major Asian democracy that attended the military parade, which was aimed at showcasing the latest Chinese weaponry designed to counter U.S. power in the Pacific. In a calculated move, Park made sure to wear a pair of dark sunglasses to signal passive engagement in photos, but the pictures from the Chinese capital were worth a thousand words.
Several U.S. pundits opined about a Korea that was slowly but surely gravitating into the Chinese orbit and away from the United States and Japan. Others countered that Washington is missing the real picture—that Park was on the viewing stand rubbing shoulders with Xi in the spot traditionally occupied by the North Korean leader (whose representative was relegated to the cheap seats). Put another way, Park is not distancing South Korea from the United States; she is bringing Beijing closer to Seoul while distancing it from Pyongyang.
Both outlooks are shortsighted. There is no denying that each has its own logical coherence, but both represent the type of two-dimensional, zero-sum thinking that typified U.S. strategy during the Cold War era. What we are actually seeing is Diplomacy 2.0 on the Korean peninsula: a nuanced, three-dimensional foreign policy strategy designed to alter Chinese strategic thinking, engage U.S. interests, and ultimately build Northeast Asian cooperation where there was little in the past.
UPGRADING THE SYSTEM
In Northeast Asia, Diplomacy 1.0 meant choosing the least controversial path on the international stage. Under this logic, the safe play would have been for Park to attend the Beijing celebrations and politely
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