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Tacit Acceptance and Watchful Eyes: Beijing's Views about the U.S.-ROK Alliance

Authored by Dr. Fei-Ling Wang. | January 1997

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Summary

To understand China's foreign policy in the 1990s and the true attitude of Beijing towards the military presence of the United States in Northeast Asia, one must examine China's perception of the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Public statements aside, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has shifted its traditional position and has tacitly accepted, even welcomed, the continuation of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Beijing views the institutionalized presence of the Americans in Northeast Asia as a stabilizing force, serving China's interest of maintaining the favorable status quo in the region. However, continued acceptance is not guaranteed; developments in the Sino-American relationship and the course of reunification of the Korean Peninsula will affect attitudes in the future.

In order to discuss China's perception of the U.S.-Korean alliance, let us first examine China's general post-Cold War security policy, especially regarding Northeast Asia. As the century ends, Beijing, increasingly preoccupied with its own domestic agenda, has adopted a more conservative attitude (near-term) in Northeast Asia. In the post-Cold War era, international competition has shifted from the political and military to the economic arena. In this new mileau, Beijing displays a changed, even ambivalent, attitude towards the United States' political and military presence in Northeast Asia. American ground forces in Japan and South Korea and U.S. naval presence in the Western Pacific have now generally disappeared from China's list of complaints. Indeed, the United States is frequently regarded as a stabilizing force in the region, although Beijing watches carefully Washington's "hegemonic" moves.

The future of the political division on the Korean Peninsula is naturally of key importance to China's perception of the U.S.-ROK alliance. One can hardly observe much eagerness on China's part for a rapid reunification of Korea, although Beijing is somewhat sincere in supporting the idea of letting the Koreans themselves control the reunification process. To Beijing, a stable, peaceful and (hopefully) friendly, but perhaps divided, Korean Peninsula is more desirable than rapid reunification or a de-nuclearization of North Korea. Finally, as a result of China's overall security considerations, Beijing now appears to have quietly accepted the U.S.-ROK alliance as a part of the favorable status quo in Northeast Asia. Continued tacit acceptance, however, is not guaranteed. From the Chinese perspective, there seems to be an inherent conflict between a united Korea and a strong Korean- American alliance; if a united Korea maintains an alliance with the United States, Beijing may have to make a sharp policy shift. The key variables affecting China's perception of the U.S.-ROK alliance in the future, therefore, seem to be theoverall Sino-American relationship and the development of the inter-Korean relationship.

Conclusion

China is satisfied with current Northeast Asian international relations. However, it watches for new threats-- mostly likely in the form of an external, dominating power in East Asia or revived Japanese militarism. Limited by its own capacity, the PRC is likely to play the old balance of power game to maintain a favorable status quo. On the Korean Peninsula, China does not want rapid change or stalemate. Despite China's suspicions and doubts, the United States is currently viewed by Beijing as an effective means to maintain the security arrangement in Northeast Asia. For China's short-term security objectives, the Americans are welcomed (and even encouraged) to continue their military presence in South Korea to constrain the Japanese.But, a United States that aggressively promotes human rights and political democracy is deeply feared by Beijing as a long-term challenge to the political stability of the CCP regime. U.S. policies towards Taiwan, driven by domestic politics, touch even more sensitive nerves in Beijing. The recent Chinese taciturn consent to the presence of the Russian naval forces in the Pacific may indicate that Beijing is preparing an alternative to American help in balancing Japan. The double security objective of using and resisting the United States in East Asia appears to be China's dominant perception of the American presence in this region in general and the U.S-ROK alliance in particular.

Beijing accepts and even tacitly likes the U.S.-ROK alliance, as long as it remains a bilateral alliance with the simple aim of deterring external aggression against the ROK. The Chinese Foreign Minister recently (and openly) termed the formerly much-criticized U.S.-ROK military relationship as merely something "the Americans are now discussing among themselves."64 That is, it is basically an American and South Korean issue under the current international structure in Northeast Asia. China would not mind this alliance at all. Given our understanding of China's security concerns in East Asia, however, any alteration of the purpose, content, or scope of the U.S.-ROK alliance wouldnecessarily cause Beijing to reassess its position. China accepts a U.S.-ROK alliance in a divided Korea, but a united Korea with a continued Korean-American military alliance would be very undesirable to Beijing. The key variables affecting China's perception of the U.S.-ROK alliance in the future, therefore, seem to be the overall Sino-American relationship and the development of the inter-Korean relationship.

Endnotes

64.Renmin Ribao, March 24, 1993, p. 1. Similar statements were later repeated by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in 1994 and 1995.