Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul in early July offered a curious display of friendship between two governments that have every reason to view one another with suspicion. What political and strategic considerations have brought China and Korea together?
Beijing’s basic strategy in Asia is to impress its neighbors with its economic power and deepen their dependence on China. The number of Chinese business leaders accompanying Xi on his recent visit to the Republic of Korea was suggestive of this strategy. By building its regional economic clout, China also hopes to win political support from its Asian neighbors, thereby bolstering its status in the region. This underlying motive could be discerned in public comments by Xi that sought to play up the historical antagonism between Japan and the ROK and further undermine Japan’s standing with the South Koreans.
By pursuing closer relations with Seoul, Beijing may also be hoping to contain an increasingly recalcitrant North Korea, while at the same time putting the brakes on the US-Korea alliance and driving a wedge into the regional strategic triangle formed by Japan, the ROK, and the United States.
The ROK, for its part, may be seeking to gain a competitive advantage over Japan and other trade rivals by stabilizing its ties with China, which has become its largest trade partner. Xi’s visit to Seoul was also intended to send a clear message to Pyongyang that Beijing disapproves of the North’s nuclear program, a message articulated in the joint statement issued by Xi and President Park Geun-hye.
Sharing a Warped View of History
Be that as it may, Xi’s remarks during his stay in the ROK, particularly those regarding Japan, unwittingly revealed the dubious grounds on which Beijing’s advances are based.
Especially problematic was his comment that China and the ROK had fought side by side against Japanese aggression as early as four centuries ago. He was referring, apparently, to the fact that the forces of Joseon dynasty Korea and Ming dynasty China had come together to repel the invasion of Korea by the Japanese military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late sixteenth century.
At first glance, this may seem like a clever way of tapping into long-simmering Korean resentment toward Japan. But coming from a head of state, it was a most inappropriate comment and one that exposed a peculiarly warped perception of history.
Three centuries before Hideyoshi’s Korean campaign, Korea and China had jointly invaded Japan, killing, wounding, and abducting many Japanese. It is baffling that a Chinese political leader would publicly touch on a 400-year-old event, while ignoring the question of how China and the ROK view the history prior to it.
Xi also neglected to mention that about 50 years after Hideyoshi’s invasion, during the Qing dynasty, China itself invaded Korea. The scene of the Korean king swearing fealty to China on his knees is memorialized in the form of a stone monument in Seoul. One can only wonder how this episode is interpreted nowadays.
Why do China and the ROK both cling to their own warped versions of history despite their obvious inconsistencies? In China’s case, it is probably because, to this very day, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule rests largely on its war of resistance against Japan. In the ROK as well, standing up to Japan often serves to reinforce the legitimacy of those in power. Herein, it seems, lies the odd solidarity between China and the ROK.
(Originally written in Japanese on July 16, 2014. Title photo: The China-Korea summit meeting held on July 3, 2014. Photo by Yonhap/Aflo.)
Invited professor, Aoyama Gakuin University; secretary general, Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. Born in 1938. Graduated from the Law Faculty at the University of Tokyo and the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1962, serving as director general of the Cultural Affairs Department and of the Economic Affairs Bureau, deputy minister for foreign affairs, and ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, and France. President of the Japan Foundation from October 2003 to September 2011. His works include Gurōbarizumu e no hangyaku (Rebellion Against Globalism; 2004).