It’s hardly an easy matter. South Korea’s position as a middle power between China and the United States I mean. It’s not easy to navigate a nation and society between two powerful rivals.

I want to talk about the influence of China on South Korea in the present context. It’s a presence that poses challenges and opportunities.

China and South Korea are rising powers. While China’s power potential dwarfs every nation’s, with the exception of India, South Korea also has an outlook that envisages a different and better world than the present.

There are serious challenges facing the restructuring of South Korea’s economy away from powerful chaebol and the serious demographic challenges of an ageing population with fewer births. There are greater challenges for China. Nonetheless, South Korea rises, as does China.

South Korea needs positive and prosperous relations with China. She should cooperate in the Belt and Road initiative, work together for the future of the disastrous state and society of North Korea, and create trade relations and commerce to benefit both peoples, the region and the world.

All strike me as core national interests for both countries. South Korea needs China as a trade market and supplier of raw materials. Key industries depend on China too much.

Caution attends any friendship of peoples, and it should characterise Sino-Korean relations. China is not a country whose political culture South Korea wants to copy. South Korea is not a communist ally.

The future of a united Korea should be democratic, even if Korean democracy looks different from Euro-American versions. Here, overtures to a “strategic cooperative partnership” from China suggest constant caution.

South Korea’s strategic military-political interests rest with the United States at the present, and, yes, with Japan. The possibility of a grand or regional Pax Asiana hasn’t emerged and isn’t likely. Stepping too closely with China isn’t advisable, to say the least.

South Korea’s alliance with the U.S., though complicated by Trump administration policies, should remain strong. Overtime, as South Korea assumes even greater responsibility for allied military affairs on the peninsula, this alliance shouldn’t end.

The roles of partners change overtime, but the purpose of the friendship remains. The United States welcomes peace and unification in a future friendly to Korean democracy. Nothing in the Sino-North Korean orbit bodes this possibility today.

The fundamental commitment of the Korean people to democracy, wrought with blood and civil strife, shouldn’t be lost on citizens and friends alike. Look at Hong Kong. Look at Xinjiang and Tibet. Democracy as a foundational interest of South Korea puts South Korea squarely in the community of democratic and freedom-loving nations. These aren’t the commitments of rising Chinese power. We needn’t speak of the North’s totalitarian monstrosity.

If China blusters about THAAD, it also transparently calms the North for Chinese interests. South Korea is correct to take part in cooperative economic projects with China while leaving space and buffers in military and political matters. South Korean and Chinese interests have limited convergence at best. I think it prudent the Moon government has shown targeted and limited cooperation with the recent “Hormuz decision.”

Democratic nations predict China’s development will see a leavening from rising expectations rooted in economics. That movement should lead away from authoritarian repression and antidemocratic norms.

The Chinese government has its own gambit in an opposite direction, that economic development doesn’t conflict with communist, one-party, centralised command and control of society in the Xi era. I’d argue the historical evidence sides in the former direction. We’ll see.

A recent U.S. Pew Center report of global opinion also shows a rising China, with qualifications. About as many people worldwide have favourable views of China as unfavourable. China may take heart that her large global investments and forming ties with developing countries see rising favourable ratings.

However, unfavourable ratings remain in nations, such as Canada, with high emigre Chinese populations and nations with high GDP and democratic cultures.

South Korea should continue her successful habits of syncretism. She must cultivate prudent and positive relations with all comers, including powerful neighbours such as China. All evidence points to the foresight of this grand strategy for the good of Korea’s national interest and her people in the present context.

Author: Bernard Rowan, Associate provost for contract Administration & Professor of Political Science at Chicago State University. He is a past fellow of the Korea Foundation & Former visiting Professor at Hanyang University.
Editor’s Note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.