S Korea's rise as a middle power

After attending China's high-profile military parade on Sept 3, South Korean President Park Geun Hye is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly and is due to hold summit talks with United States President Barack Obama on Oct 16.

What will likely play in American minds is the scene in Beijing suggesting the growing closeness between the two North-east Asian neighbours: that of Ms Park standing next to Chinese President Xi Jinping at the parade, a likely poke in the eye for the absent US, which is South Korea's major security ally.

Critics have questioned whether the South Korean leader is getting too close to an increasingly assertive China, first by joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and then attending the Beijing parade.

Some scholars, however, see South Korea playing the role of a middle power amid the growing rivalry between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific.

On the security front, the US-South Korea alliance, marked by a huge US troop presence and annual joint exercises, is a cornerstone for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. Trade-wise, China is now South Korea's largest export market, with bilateral trade last year amounting to US$235.4 billion (S$336 billion). A free trade agreement inked in June could further boost trade to more than US$300 billion a year.

Today, Ms Park is slated to deliver a keynote address at the UN assembly, expounding South Korea's position and clarifying its commitment to global issues concerning peace, security, development and climate change, said her presidential office. It added that her speech is expected to raise the country's standing "as a middle power".

Talks involving South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se, his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida and US Secretary of State John Kerry will be held tomorrow on the sidelines of the UN meeting.

Many in Seoul, meanwhile, want an explication of South Korea's ties with the US. An editorial in Chosun Ilbo said South Korea needs to reassure the US over its ties with China while bolstering relations with Japan. The government's "credibility could be damaged if it is seen by the international community as dancing to Beijing's tune", it added.

But some analysts feel there is no conflict in South Korea's relations with the US and China.

"The US is our key ally... while China is a country sharing common interests with us in many respects, including economic co-operation and denuclearisation of North Korea," said Dr Chung Eun Sook, a senior research fellow at Sejong Institute.

Dr Kim Byung Ki, a professor of politics and international relations at Korea University, noted that even though Seoul has been strengthening its economic ties with Beijing, this would not lead to a security alliance as China is bound by treaty to defend North Korea in times of war.

Said Dr Kongdan Oh of the Institute for Defence Analyses: "President Park has displayed a very pragmatic and mature leadership. Engaging China with an open mind will be the best course... as a smaller power very close to China."

Given that Ms Park knows how crucial a strong South Korea-US alliance is in deterring the unpredictable North Korea, she would want to reaffirm her country's ties with the US at her upcoming summit with Mr Obama, Dr Oh added.

Buoyed by a rise in approval ratings after her hard-line approach to North Korea's latest provocation, Ms Park appears to have relaxed her stance towards dialogue with Japan. She had earlier refused to enter into talks unless Tokyo offers a clear resolution on historic issues like comfort women.

"My hunch on why she is now slightly flexible towards Japan is the confidence she gained from the very cordial and trusting relationship with President Xi Jinping," said Dr Oh.

In a significant step towards better ties in North-east Asia, Ms Park and Mr Xi mutually agreed to hold a trilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by early November in Seoul.

The summit was last held in 2012, before Ms Park assumed office. Some scholars hope that South Korea can step up as a middle power, exerting some influence on the US over the AIIB, which Washington disapproves of, or speaking up against China's aggressiveness in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

"If South Korea manages its relations with these neighbours and a Pacific power equitably, it may just end up as the fulcrum of peace in the region," said Dr Lim Tai Wei, adjunct research fellow at Singapore's East Asian Institute.

"But if its delicate dance with the major powers has a misstep, for example, perceptions of tilting too far to one side, South Korea can face diplomatic and economic challenges.

"So far, it has been very skilful."


This article was first published on September 28, 2015.
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