Trying to loosen the linchpin: China’s approach to South Korea

South Korea and China's flags flutter next to Tiananmen Gate during the visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-In in Beijing, China December 15, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee

Executive Summary

Learn more about Global ChinaChina sees South Korea as a critical part of its effort to establish its preeminence in Northeast Asia. South Korea’s status in the U.S. alliance architecture as the “linchpin” and its central role regarding North Korea issues, as well as its geographic proximity and economic dynamism, have underscored the country’s importance to China’s regional strategy. This strategy is driven by a desire to weaken Washington’s alliance relationships, increase Beijing’s influence on Korean Peninsula affairs, including North Korea denuclearization, and shape the region to be more amenable to supporting its preferences. Beijing perceives Seoul as the weakest link in the U.S. alliance network, given its perception of South Korea’s deference and history of accommodating China’s rise relative to other regional players, such as Japan, which considers China a long-term security threat.

For most of the two decades following the normalization of bilateral relations in 1992, Beijing primarily employed its soft power — encouraging economic interdependence and people-to-people ties, emphasizing China’s desire for peace and prosperity in the region, and highlighting its role as a “good neighbor,” for example — to woo South Korea. Seoul has welcomed the blossoming of trade cooperation and further developing security cooperation in large part because South Korean leaders view China’s cooperation as vital to Seoul’s North Korea policy, even as its leaders became increasingly wary about China’s rise and aggressiveness.

Those fears became reality when Beijing, emboldened by its growing economic, diplomatic, and military weight, took a more confrontational approach and sought to exert its strength toward punishing South Korea when Seoul decided to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) American anti-ballistic missile defense system after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016. The THAAD issue provided insight into the drivers of China’s relationship with South Korea and the tools it employed to exert influence over the Korean Peninsula. This paper traces the trajectory of China-South Korea relations, how the North Korea nuclear issue and the U.S. alliance infrastructure have affected bilateral ties, and how Beijing might seek to cajole and coerce Seoul to defer to China’s interests amid the intensification of U.S.-China strategic competition.