Japan-US-Korea Alliance: Beijing Fears New Security Architecture in East Asia

South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol shares three common things with Japan’s recently elected PM Fumio Kishida – conservative leaning, hostility towards North Korea, and hate-China outlook. This means a possible Fumio-Yoon-Biden security cooperation is already a cause to worry for Beijing.

Not surprisingly, media headlines in China have been calling Yoon Suk-yeol as South Korea’s “Trump.” We don’t know if Trump will return to the White House in 2024 to haunt the Chinese. What we do know is the political elite in Beijing is already fearful that the conservative new president-elect of S Korea may take a Trumpian “whole-of-government” anti-China hardline approach towards the “mighty” communist neighbour. Even bigger concern in Beijing’s strategic affairs community is Japan suddenly looking very hopeful of a “pro-Tokyo” government in Seoul under the new right-wing, conservative president. What threatens to upset Beijing’s game-plan is Tokyo and Seoul come together and join Washington to form US-Japan-South Korea security architecture in East Asia.

President Xi Jinping promptly congratulating Yoon Suk-yeol, or Yin Xiyue – as Yoon is known to most Chinese, is a usual diplomatic protocol the People’s Republic of China adheres to. Although Xi was hours behind both Biden and Kishida in greeting Yoon. In contrast, notwithstanding President Biden’s unscheduled phone call to Yoon within five hours of the latter being declared elected, what has raised eyebrows in Beijing is 15-minute “long” telephone conversation the next day between Prime Minister Kishida and the new South Korean leader. According to a recent Chinese commentary, following the announcement of the March 10 South Korean election result, Japan’s newly formed Kishida government has been quite conspicuous in not hiding a big sigh of relief. “Japan’s approach to the matter is to be cautiously ‘happy’. 

‘Happy’ because Moon Jae-in, who is ‘anti-Japanese’ in Japanese public opinion, has stepped down, and the candidate of his party has not been elected,” the article stated.

Earlier on, it was observed as rather unusual for Beijing that several “unfriendly” media commentaries popped up within hours of Yoon’s victory. Some of the headlines which “greeted” the 61-year old conservative Korean leader include “South Korea’s new president may take a hardline stance on China,” “What does one make of the new South Korean leader?” “How will the situation evolve now in East Asia?” “South Korea elects pro-Washington president – international capital’s one more erroneous step,” and “Campaign rhetoric may not hint South Korea’s future China policy” etc.

Interestingly, weeks before the South Korean presidential election result was declared, China’s Seoul watchers had started drawing up strategies for Beijing to deal with the conservative People Power Party (PPP) – South Korean largest opposition party – and its populist leader but new into the country’s political arena, Yoon Suk-yeol. Experts in China also broadly agreed on the following points: one, Yoon, the country’s top graft buster who was appointed prosecutor-general in 2019 by none other than the outgoing President Moon Jae-in, is clearly a “pro-US, anti-China” leader; two, Yoon advocates an aggressive attitude in many China-related issues, for example, throughout campaign he severely criticized the Liberal Democrat Moon’s promises of three “No’s,” – no additional THAAD deployments, no participation in US-led global missile shield, and no creation of trilateral military alliance involving Japan; and three, Yoon’s rising popularity in just past two-three years has much to do with Yoon exploiting the LDP’s “pro-China” stance and playing to the gallery.

Arguably, it is the cultural factor in particular which is instrumental in the rise in anti-China sentiments, especially among the young people in South Korea. According to a recent report, the wrong interpretation of Korean history and condescending approach to their culture by China is what has annoyed them, especially the young Koreans. As in last October, widely influential Stanford University Korea Studies Program director, Professor Gi-Wook Shin, had observed that China’s claim that Korean heritage such as traditional food (kimchi and samgyetang) and traditional Korean dress (hanbok) – all have “their roots in China.” Also, in the words of Sejong University professor Lee Moon-ki, “Koreans believe our culture is unique and was never dependent on China, whereas China thinks Korea only has a culture thanks to China.” [My emphasis]

Furthermore, what is most irritating to most Koreans is the Chinese claim that the Korean Kingdom Gogureyo was part of Chinese history. Apparently, it is this arrogance and patronising attitude of China which is pushing people in South Korea to shift away from China toward the United States. 

To return to what China’s analysts and leaders think of Yoon Suk-yeol, there are three broad noticeable trends in the official, semi-official, and leftist digital news platforms. First, in the words of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Dong Xiaorong, Yoon Suk-yeol was voted into power by a large majority of Korean voters in their 20s. On Yoon’s foreign policy, while the CASS scholar agreed with several others that Yoon “is pro-US,” she did emphasize the president-elect maintained a neutral stance when he said “[I] would never like to be forced to have to choose between China and the United States.”

Second, China’s well-known and reported to be relatively independent, liberal financial daily Caixin did warn about the newly elected presidents’ tough approach toward Beijing. Third, as was expected, a hardline nationalist, leftist digital news and current affairs platform was least charitable to president-elect Yoon, and said: “Yin Xiyue has just emerged from “electoral heat,” as his first job, he is duty-bound to report to the White House.” However, referring to the congratulatory message to Yoon Suk-yeol by China’s foreign ministry which also mentioned “China and South Korea are neighbours who cannot be moved away,” the hard-line leftist website in an almost veiled warning said: We hope Yin Xiyue takes a pragmatic view of China-South Korea relations. [But] if he chooses to restart the THAAD system “frozen” by his predecessor, then the consequences are going to be very serious.”

Finally, most analysts and experts in China appear to be willing to give Yoon Suk-yeol a benefit of doubt and expect him to not disturb the “Blue House” current status quo position on China. The president-elect will assume office in the month of May, in these two months, as some Chinese commentators reckon, the new president will do well to set clear his foreign policy priorities, which may include the following: South Korea will not undermine economic cooperative relations with China; Seoul will not restart the deployment of THAAD; South Korea will not touch China’s red line on Taiwan question; and last but not the least, South Korea will not join Quad+ or any anti-China military alliance in the region.

Let me conclude by citing what Professor Lü Chao, director of the Institute of the US and East Asian Studies, Liaoning University wrote in his recent column just before the South Korean presidential election on March 9: “In the 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea, no president has been able to undermine the overall foundation of bilateral relations once taking office. Even if the PPP is in power, it will not make major re-adjustments in the China-South Korea partnership.”   

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.