Should China replace US as S. Korea's key ally? - The Korea Times
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Should China replace US as S. Korea's key ally?

China's leader Xi Jinping holds a teleconference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Reuters-Yonhap
China's leader Xi Jinping holds a teleconference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Reuters-Yonhap

By Oh Young-jin

Many Koreans would still find it unthinkable for China to replace the United States as their country's most important ally. After all, the U.S. helped defend Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. In one of the first key clashes of the Cold War era, it was the communist Chinese, the ancestors of China's paramount leader Xi Jinping, who aided and abetted North Koreans. The result was millions of casualties with the two Koreas still frozen in time, pointing thousands of guns plus countless missiles at each other in one of the world's few remaining flashpoints that some predict could be where World War III starts.

For even those staunch backers of the alliance that has lasted seven decades, it is as inevitable as unthinkable to feel pessimistic about the ROK-U.S. alliance. Because U.S. President Donald Trump is trying to put a dollar figure on everything ― even on the two countries' blood-sealed brotherhood in arms ― for Koreans to become reciprocally transactional about it is more an obligation than a temptation.

Trump wants a 400 percent increase in Korea's annual contribution to the maintenance of U.S. troops in Korea to $5 billion at the cost of relegating U.S. troops to the status of mercenaries; threatening a pullout if Korea does not pay, an act expected of a neighborhood thug in an extortion racket (Trump is quoted as saying that it would be easier to shake billions out of Korea than to get a New York tenant pay his/her small rent). Trump associates with thuggish leaders like Kim Jong-un of North Korea, with their bromance reaching levels of trading compliments openly; cancelling military drills without consultation with Seoul, its alliance partner, after meeting Kim and humiliating its friend by saying that South Korean would not do anything without his approval, among other things.

In this tyranny of the democratically elected leader of the nation that is still fondly remembered as leader of the free world (not just because of the end of the Cold War but of course its declining power), Americans, the supposed owners of their nation, have been as helpless as if Romans before Cesar or Caligula or Ugandans before Idi Amin.

For Trump, the tactic is to divide and rule. The winner-take-it-all Electoral College by which U.S. presidents are elected did not reflect the will of the majority in making Trump president. The checks and balances engineered by those who participated in the making of "We the People" or descendants of Abram Lincoln's "For the people, by the people and of the people," are not working properly with Congress riled by partisan wrangling and the judiciary filled by Trump wearing the emperor's new clothes.

But dumping all the blame on one person is unfair. Because an extreme brand of populism like Trump's is symptomatic of a power in decline (Make America Great Again! is not a go-get-it slogan but sounds like the rueful comment from an old man reminiscing about his bygone youth), the U.S. is caught in the Thucydides' trap ― in that sense, Trump is a facilitator, not the creator hastening the emergence of a new world order. China would be a dominant pretender; India is a charmer, Europe is trying to be resurgent and the U.S. could still be strong but in a lesser role in the brave new world that may be multi-polar before one supremo settles it all.

Given the circumstances, Korea is increasingly finding it less unconscionable and even necessary to shop for an ally or swap existing alliances with new ones. So speculation that Korea is leaning toward China is not just on the basis of the Moon Jae-in government's tendency to like things Chinese, but an inevitable consequence of a global situation in flux.

But the problem is that China may be getting bigger and stronger with its modernization, but this so far has not been accompanied by the maturity of its collective mindset, as seen by Beijing's handling of demonstrations by Hong Kong's freedom fighters and Chinese residents' violent reactions against criticism of China overseas. In other words, China is still suffering from an inferiority complex caused by the ravages of the Qing dynasty by Western powers. It is quite odd that Puyi's Qing subjugated mainstream Chinese Han, but Xi is taking revenge on the West for the humiliation they brought to the last dynasty in the Middle Kingdom, minus the present one in an early budding stage.

It is also problematic that Korea has adopted Western values ― rule of law, human rights, separation of power, universal suffrage and the whole nine yards ― that are directly in conflict with China's one-man rule. Koreans are still fighting the memories of autocracy. Then, Foreign Minister Wang Yi's recent visit left a bitter taste due to his lack of respect for the host country.

Then what about India, Europe, Japan or Russia? They do have their limitations as replacements for the U.S. now, but together they could be an ally if a multi-polar order comes to pass. So it all goes back to square one ― U.S. or China. This makes shopping for an alliance a not very pleasant experience.

Oh Young-jin (, is digital managing editor of The Korea Times.

Oh Young-jin

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