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A Fork in the Road? Korea and China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

By Balbina Y. Hwang, Visiting Professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.

Abstract

In 2013, two countries in East Asia launched their respective visions for an East-meets-West integrated region: China pronounced one of the most ambitious foreign economic strategies in modern times by any country, “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), and South Korea launched the “Eurasia Initiative” (EAI). This paper examines the rationale, contours, implications, and possibilities for success of Korea’s EAI within the context of China’s OBOR, because a study of the former is incomplete without a clear understanding of the strategic political and economic motivations of the latter. This paper also draws conclusions about how EAI reflects South Korea’s national and regional aspirations, as well as the security implications for the relationship and interaction between the two countries’ alternate visions for a Eurasian continent. While Korean and Chinese visions superficially share a broad and similar goal of connecting two separate regions, ultimately their visions diverge fundamentally on conflicting understandings about national and regional security, and the political and economic roles that each country plays in achieving their ambitions.

Conclusion

In today’s uncertain global environment with new threats and crises emerging with startling frequency, the Korean Peninsula unfortunately remains the focal point of a steady and compelling security problem, as it has for almost 70 years. Aside from the profoundly tragic human costs of the continued division of the Korean people, the political consequences of ongoing tensions and the potential for an outbreak of the Korean War frozen for 63 years has global ramifications, not the least because it could involve military confrontation among the world’s three largest nuclear weapons powers—the United States, China, Russia— and of course now North Korea as an “illegitimate” nuclear power. Yet, a permanent resolution of the bitter division of the Korean Peninsula has perhaps equally profound consequences for the future of the entire Asia-Pacific-Eurasia region, and may even hold the key to possible integration of the Eastern and Western worlds.

China has embarked on an astonishingly ambitious path to link several continents under a new informal architecture shaped by its desire to expand extra-territorial stability. Yet, the purposefully limited view westward (and north and south) with the explicit exclusion of its easternmost neighbor, the Korean Peninsula which is economically and strategically crucial for true regional integration, is strikingly stark. It is perhaps further confirmation that for China, maintenance of the status quo— division of the Korean Peninsula—even with North Korea’s ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons programs, serves Chinese strategic goals: ensuring extra-territorial stability especially in its bordering countries.

Such entrenched Chinese interests are increasingly at odds with South Korea’s own vision for the region, supported by its growing confidence as a solid middle power. Exacerbating Korean skepticism about Chinese regional ambitions has been Beijing’s increasing boldness in asserting its power in the region, as evidenced by China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in November 2013, which shocked many South Koreans because of its inclusion of Ieodo (or “Parangdo” by Korea), a rock that China claims as part of its territorial rights (Suyan Rock).55 Thus, the ROK’s “Eurasian Initiative,” despite purporting to share similar goals with OBOR of reviving the ancient Silk Roads to promote economic benefits for all involved, is far more likely to be divergent paths than a shared road.

Yet, more than the potential loss of long-term regional benefits, the divergence between the two visions for extra-regional integration signal a deeper and troubling disparity in fundamental views about regional security. China’s refusal to acknowledge the obstructionist role that North Korea plays not only against regional integration but stability on the Peninsula is being acknowledged and challenged by the South Korean leadership, and increasingly by the public. The negative Chinese reaction to Seoul’s decision to deploy the U.S.-led THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system, while unsurprising, was startling in its vehemence, and has only served to increase South Korean suspicions about Chinese ambitions.

Indeed, Chinese willingness to insert itself into the domestic debate on South Korea’s sovereign right to defend itself is indicative of the extent to which China’s preoccupation with stability in its extra-territorial regions is crucial to its own perception and needs regarding its national security. Meanwhile, North Korea’s ability to assert its own independent actions despite regional and global pressures highlight the opportunities for exploitation created by the inability of regional powers to cooperate when national security interests diverge. Thus, the respective grand projects promulgated by China and South Korea to revive the ancient Silk Roads in order to promote regional integration may paradoxically unleash greater divisions in the Asia-Pacific, and fail to deliver the regional stability both nations are striving to achieve.

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