On an uncharacteristically bright and clear day in June 2013, the newly inaugurated president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, arrived in Beijing for an official state visit. The Chinese government had pulled out all the stops to welcome her, running effusive articles in the state media about her Mandarin skills and her love of Chinese culture, and clearing the normally polluted Beijing sky to ensure a picture-perfect arrival. South Koreans were thrilled by their neighbors’ enthusiasm; South Korean media covered every aspect of Park’s trip and detailed the exceptional treatment their president was receiving. Meanwhile, pundits in the United States and elsewhere worried that it was the beginning of South Korea’s tilt toward China and away from the U.S. alliance system in Asia.
Yet despite such predictions, China has over the past three years failed to cultivate influence with South Korea, a neighbor that both sought China’s friendship and continues to depend on the Chinese market. This failure was not inevitable. It resulted largely from Beijing’s self-absorbed approach to diplomacy, specifically on the issue of North Korea. Seoul’s July announcement of its intention to deploy a U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) on South Korean territory, delivered despite strenuous objections and even threats from Beijing, was a recent reminder that China’s newfound economic clout does not readily translate to strategic influence. Unless Beijing changes its diplomatic approach and works to persuade its neighbors that its regional vision, whatever that may be, is beneficial for everyone, China will find itself increasingly isolated in the region.
China and South Korea’s diplomatic courtship began in early 2013, following Park’s election. Park entered office seeking to strengthen Seoul’s relationship with Beijing, which had suffered from China’s support for North Korea after Pyongyang’s military provocations against Seoul in 2010, as well as from her predecessor Lee Myung-bak’s diplomatic focus on the United States. Park’s China policy indispensable for disarming North Korea and for establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula; and second, that South Korea’s economy depends heavily on trade with China. Even before her inauguration, the president-elect sent a special envoy to China—her first to any country. Once in office, Park visited Beijing herself on the heels of her first trip to the United States. Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, was happy to reciprocate South Korean overtures, calling Park an old friend, honoring her request to erect a memorial in Harbin for Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean independence activist who assassinated a prominent Japanese politician in 1909, and breaking Chinese tradition by visiting Seoul before setting foot in Pyongyang, which Xi has yet to do as president.
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