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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 excuse herself before the parade of missiles began to roll. But if Park wished to send credible messages about positive atmospherics in South Korean–Chinese relations, and her wish to take their relations to the next level, that wouldn’t do. In this case, Park was willing to take a hit to her reputation in Washington. She has a larger three-dimensional game in mind, of which spoiling the party for North Korea is only a small part.
Seoul signed a free trade agreement with Beijing in June 2015, in addition to opening a dialogue between each nation’s national security council in November 2013. Earlier that year, Park had visited Tsinghua University in Beijing and, speaking in Mandarin Chinese, gave an address on the future of relations between China and the Republic of Korea. All these efforts were meant to alter Beijing’s assessment of its importance on both ends of the Korean peninsula. By any metric, China’s future is brighter if it is pegged to an economically vibrant, technologically savvy, and globally relevant South Korea rather than an aid-devouring black hole to the North. Many Chinese officials and scholars believe that North Korea’s regime belongs in a museum, but such clearheaded thinking is often obscured by two generations of “sealed in blood” policy embedded in Chinese bureaucracy and strategic culture. This is what Park is up against.
In this regard, few noticed Seoul’s casual reference to unification within its statement on Park’s meetings in China. The document states that “the two sides also had in-depth discussions on the issue of unification. The Korean side stressed that with the Korean Peninsula in its 70th year of division, peaceful unification was a pressing aim, the realization of which would also contribute to promoting peace and prosperity in the region. The Chinese side said that it supported "the peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula by the Korean people.” This was, however, the first time that China has ever mentioned unification in a statement with South Korea, signaling that bilateral discussions between Seoul and Beijing on unification have entered new territory. Of course, gaining Chinese support for South Korean positions in a unification scenario is not all that Park is after: she is also looking to build a trilateral dialogue among China, South Korea, and her key ally the United States about the peninsula’s future.
Indeed, Park’s attendance at Beijing’s V-Day celebrations is but a part of her larger use of geometry diplomacy to bring Beijing, Seoul, and Washington together. And this fall appears to be the appropriate moment for her plan to come together: Park met with Xi in Beijing on September 2, Xi met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on September 25, and Obama and Park plan to meet in Washington on October 16. Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean leaders are scheduled to hold a trilateral meeting in Seoul at the end of October or beginning of November. These meetings provide the building blocks for what Seoul hopes will be the first ever three-way discussion among China, South Korea, and the United States later this year or early next year. Although no formal date has been announced, a trilateral meeting could be held on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Turkey in November, the 2015 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December, or the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington next March. If such a meeting were to occur, its agenda could be used to coordinate priorities, establish a division of labor to tackle these tasks (for example, to secure nuclear weapons, stem refugee flows, and stabilize the situation on the ground), increase transparency between actors, and reduce the potential for miscalculation along the way.
Admittedly, these are lofty strategic goals. The state of U.S.-Chinese relations today is challenging. But even broaching a discussion on formerly taboo topics, however, might be significant. Such a dialogue ties into the broader vision for Northeast Asian cooperation that Park officials have called the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI). The region’s unparalleled levels of economic growth and prosperity have not translated into the sort of political cooperation and institution building that the liberal paradigm upholds. To fix this, the NAPCI framework suggests the construction of incremental cooperation that is pragmatic, functional, and devoid of both history and ideology. Such cooperation could take form on issues such as nuclear safety, cybersecurity, climate change, health pandemics, and disaster response, where each party has an interest in sharing information and pooling resources. But as U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said during the recent gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the region’s primary threat to prosperity and stability is North Korea.
The North Korean regime under Kim Jong-un grows more reclusive by the day, focusing solely on its burgeoning weapons of mass destruction programs at the expense of the well-being of North Koreans. Kim’s continued purge of high-level officials during the first four years of his transition into power has signaled that all is not well in Pyongyang. Although the country continues to lack food and energy, the leadership spends its resources on building amusement parks, ski resorts, and hosting Dennis Rodman, which is an embarrassment to Beijing. The Chinese president has refused to meet with the young, rambunctious Kim, while he has met several times already with Park. Chinese scholars and officials, as a result of past North Korean missile and nuclear tests, are now at liberty to express their frustration with Pyongyang and the lack of a way out. The nightmare scenario for the region is a North Korea in collapse, with loose nuclear weapons that heighten tensions and military competition between the United States and Japan and with China.
New ideas will always meet resistance because they are foreign and unfamiliar, and Park’s Diplomacy 2.0 is no different. This new form of diplomacy cuts against the grain in Asian diplomacy, where uncontroversial and one-dimensional thinking predominates. It is also not without its challenges. First, South Korea’s vision for Northeast Asian cooperation cannot happen without an improvement in Seoul’s bilateral relations with Tokyo. The estranged ties between Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appear to be on the mend, but should they deteriorate instead, Park’s plans will be almost moot. The second challenge is a North Korean provocation. The honeymoon in the Park-Xi relationship has not been tested by Kim’s misbehavior, as it was during the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan. Beijing’s silence following North Korea’s actions, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, soured Chinese–South Korean relations. Seoul will expect much from China in the event of a North Korean missile or nuclear test. But if China rises to meet these demands, then the region might be entering a new phase of diplomacy after all.