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Korea is the ever-sharpening focus of the growing tensions between China and Japan because moving Korea out of the security alliance led by the U.S. and Japan is the proximate objective of China’s grand design for the North Pacific.
President Xi Jinping’s five visits to South Korea since his inauguration last year are part of a courtship based on exploiting Korea’s deep racial and historical resentment of Japan. The essence of China’s pitch to South Korea—other than generous offers of increased economic opportunities—is to point out, again and again, that China shares Korea’s resentment of Japan’s beastly treatment of Koreans but that the United States is so committed to Japan as to overlook it. China’s approach has led South Korea to join China’s “Asian Infrastructure investment Bank”—the rival of the U.S.-sponsored Asian Development Bank.
But to achieve its strategic objectives, China is playing its biggest card: its life-and-death influence over North Korea. South Koreans fear the North’s nuclear program as well as its big army, and know that only China—not America, never mind Japan—is in a position to protect them. South Koreans yearn for re-unification. They know that only China can make it happen. As in his July 3, 2014 visit to Seoul, President Xi expressed support for a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Continually, the Chinese speak in terms of the entire peninsula.
It is increasingly clear that China is offering South Korea some form of a “grand bargain”: loosen if not cut your political-security ties with the U.S. and Japan—you can keep the economic ones just as we Chinese have economic ties to these countries. In exchange, we Chinese can undo the Democratic Republic of Korea. Only as you come under our security umbrella, can we make sure that reunification happens in a peaceful and orderly manner.
At the present time, Japan’s only counter to China’s approach to South Korea has been an effort to improve ties with the North. Vis-à-vis the North, this is impotent. Vis-à-vis the South, it is counterproductive in the extreme.