Min Ho Yoo, Monthly Chosun
On March 7, the day after the UN Human Rights Council’s High Commissioner Meeting was held in Geneva, I had a chance to share a table at a follow-up press conference with a Japanese journalist whom I had personally known. He questioned as he set: “How come Korea calls China G2? Why does Korea have cold feet before China?”
According to him, only the South Korean government officials would willingly call U.S and China G2, while other representatives usually reserve this term for Russia and the U.S. Furthermore, he also pointed out a subtle discrepancy from the Korean press’ coverage of the Human Rights Council’s report on North Korea. The report clearly stated that none other than the Chinese government played a crucial role in aggravating the human rights situation for the North Korean refugees, which the Korean media conveniently avoided mentioning. Up until last year, the report would describe that “the human rights violation against the North Korean refugees is in a serious level within the neighboring countries.” The newest report altered “the neighboring countries” to “China”ㅡa clear change of tone that UN has finally agreed to admit what even the ordinary Koreans would consider as an obvious fact. And yet, the Korean press and government officials deliberately avoided to take note of this significant change on China’s stance, but rather glossed it over with the issues of Comfort Women and Japanese history textbooks.
Japan’s condescension toward its closest Asian neighbors is indeed problematic. But I personally view Korea’s submissive attitude toward China equally humiliating. The question posed by a Korean reporter to the Secretary of State John Kerry at the Blue House is descriptive of this inadvertently self-demeaning Korean understanding of its geopolitics: “Is the Dokdo Island covered under the U.S-South Korea mutual defense treaty?”
The young reporter might have thought that he asked something ingeniously hitting-the-nail to a big timer like Mr. John Kerry, yet I cannot help but mourn at his utter lack of journalistic imagination to ask further:
Alas, it is probably the case that no normal Korean can even dare to think of such a China-challenging question. The Japanese perception on rising China, in contrast, is notably different from the cowardly Koreans’. Such difference originated from distinctive historical and economical experiences each of the two had in relation to China, as well as a special alliance Japan enjoys with the incumbent superpowerㅡthe U.S.
The Lessons of Ukraine to China
One can assess the quality and quantity of the American cards in hand by studying the recent Ukrainian Crisis. What distinguishes the present day US from the Cold War era is its economy card: blockade the targeted enemy through comprehensive economic sanctions. The crisis in Ukraine is likely to be protracted, regardless of whether Russia decides to directly get involved. The only certain prediction is that all-out military aggression by Russia, as it once did to Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 80s, is unlikely now due to the impacts these sanctions can have upon the economically intertwined Russia.
Furthermore, there is a clear limitation to the Russian strategy of weaponizing its energy export, the ever-proclaimed Russian trump card. The U.S can dig up anywhere on its land to open an enormous access to shale gas and petroleum deposits. If Russia chooses to strategically tighten its energy export, the US can always step in with its own productionㅡ the baseline of the American energy diplomacy of 2014. This is precisely the reason Russia cannot take up its arms and rush into Ukraine right away. Although it may stretch its arms into Ukraine temporarily, no one can say for sure how long Russia can stay offensive when it is so vulnerable to the energy export market.
China is well aware of this reality. It is calculating the possible aftermathsㅡa hurting oneㅡ it may have to face if they decide to resolve the conflicts over Senkaku Islands militarily and provoke the U.S-Japan alliance . The strategic significance of the Senkaku and the ASEAN waterway is by all means far more important to America than distant Ukraine can ever be.
Russia at least holds its superfluous energy card, but China lacks offensive cards to play against its international adversaries. It may threaten to demolish the Wall Street by liquefying all of its billion dollars-worth Treasury bond holdings, yet if such financial turmoil is brought about, it is China that shall demolish first. Plummeting U.S. dollar means that the dollar-pegged Yuan will gone down the drain as well. In the meantime, Japan and EU may quickly suck in all those bonds floating in the international market, effectively neutralizing the Chinese economic threat.
The energy is really the Achilles’ heel of China, not its strength. China imports ⅓ of the energy it consumes, including outdated energy sources such as coal from the U.S. If America really intends to push China against the corner, it can cut off the energy supply into China by aligning with other energy exporters in the Middle East, Canada, Australia, and Africa. Though such scenario is unlikely, it could instantly put a halt to the wonders of Chinese economy had it actually been realized.
The Chinese leaders fully understand these economic implications mirrored by the Ukrainian crisis; therefore they may want to resolve its territorial conflict with Japan and the U.S. through conversation before the future of China darkens otherwise.
History Matters, Perceptions Matter
Putting aside the macroeconomics and energiepolitik, let us examine the varying collective perceptions between the three nations of Northeast Asia: China, Korea, and Japan.
The Chinese perception of Japan can be summed up by two images: an ‘economical animal’ clinging to bigger nations, and a ruthless imperial soldier of bygone days slashing people’s heads off with katana. Meanwhile, most intellectuals in Korea see that the reality of the 21st century East Asia is characterized by Japan declining in the midst of China’s relative rise. Then how do the Japanese think of China? They believe, in an extreme case, that Japan can wage a war against China, and eventually triumph.
troublesome relation between
China and Japan is nothing new
The Korean brains simply cannot process the possibility of war against China. They believe that the war cannot and should not happen. As if their gene is designed in such manner, they believe that Korea can never win a fight against China ㅡwhich probably is true. This is where the Japanese perception differs from Koreans’.
I have personally felt this gap during the days I studied at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, a renowned higher education institute aiming to nurture competitive leaders in business as well as politics in Japan. My fellow alumni, many of whom are now prominent figures in the Asian political scene, never ruled out a scenario in which Japan declares a war against China. If the interests of the two does not align, “We can fight, and when we do, we can win.” This is, in fact, a perception not too uncommon among many China-specialists in Japan.
We read such Japanese mindset again from the statement made by the Japanese Minister of Finance Taro Aso in India last May: “India shares a land border with China, but Japan doesn’t [with China]; yet for the past 1,500 years there has never been a time when our relations with China was smooth.” Taro Aso was subtly alluding to the Sino-Indian border conflicts, but one can also see here the Japanese perception of China at a glanceㅡthat the troublesome relation between China and Japan is nothing new; and that Japan will never comply to China when their interests are at odds. Where is such confidence, if not jingoistic hubris, rooted in? continues on page 2