Are China and S Korea the region’s newest best buddies?

Following Japan’s move towards greater militarisation, China and South Korea edge closer.

Japan's moves to expand its military role abroad have not proved popular with its neighbours [Reuters]

Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to offer a history lesson in Japan’s “barbarous wars of aggression” against his country and South Korea during a speech at Seoul National University on July 4, though his intended audience was clearly Tokyo’s government. The wounds suffered by South Korea and China at the hands of Japanese 20th century imperialism have never really healed.

Tokyo’s move in July to widen its military capabilities has seemingly sealed a bond made of what Xi described in terms of “sweat and blood”. But if Xi’s response was as much about the past as a shared future with South Korea, does it actually signal a significant shift for Northeast Asia going forwards?

The reality of this region’s ties depends on which lens one views them through. In his speech, Xi was selective. For example, as well as reviewing Japan’s expansion in the last century, he chose to highlight Korea and China’s mutual support against Japanese aggression 400 years ago – rather than focus on his nation’s key role during the Korean War on the side of the North.

Vital partner

Beijing remains a vital military and economic partner for North Korea, a country still technically at war with the South as their 1950-53 conflict closed with an armistice agreement rather than a peace treaty. South Korea may be able to boast that Xi broke a Chinese presidential tradition stretching back more than two decades by visiting Seoul for a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye before heading to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but China is still bound by an alliance to protect the North.

Japan weighs abandoning pacifism

Aside from this three-nation entanglement, what if China’s ongoing territorial dispute with Japan was to boil over into a physical conflict? Tokyo’s established ally, the United States, would be there to back Japan, but Seoul is also tied militarily to the US – with around 30,000 American boots on the ground in the South.

How about if Japan’s conflict was instead with North Korea? South Korea and Japan’s armed forces would be on the same side, but then again, that would be nothing new for their defence chiefs.

In other words, all this talk of South Korea and China being supportive of one another is limited to other fields, like the economy and culture – thanks to being key trade and tourism partners; with China topping both lists as far as South Korea is concerned. Those sides of their relationship are not insignificant, but they were already progressing nicely before this latest controversy involving Japan.

Japan revisits constitution

None of that though, makes Japan’s recent behaviour unworthy of a further look. Fears of an end to Japanese pacifism are justified in that Tokyo’s reinterpretation of Article 9 in its post-World War II constitution allows the country to break a mould that has defined Japanese foreign policy since 1947. The country can now feel emboldened when joining its neighbours in the kind of posturing that has prevailed in the apparent absence of the will to go to war.

The Abe administration has also consistently stirred anger among Japan’s neighbours with demonstrations of insensitivity to the past. Tokyo’s attitude towards its wartime use of sex slaves, for example, has provoked widespread anger in South Korea and China. Then there was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit at the end of last December to the Yasukuni war shrine, which is most infamous for honouring war criminals – and one should not forget the fierce reaction to that impromptu stopover by a certain Justin Bieber earlier this year.

Yet there are limitations to what the Abe administration can actually achieve with its defence shift. The US might openly support Tokyo’s new position, but that is not the same as backing acts of aggression. Japan would only be able to offer military assistance to allies under attack – no wonder the US is happy to have an extra threat on its side. While the sight of a Japanese military gaining confidence understandably touches already open wounds among South Koreans and Chinese who can, in some cases, still remember the suffering these nations endured, realistically, Tokyo is toothless without US approval.

False dawn

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters on July 4 that “a new milestone for the future development of bilateral relations” had been set. It followed a script that had begun to be written on July 1 with the Abe administration’s success in gaining approval to bolster Japan’s military might. North Korea even provided some fanfare with the latest of its rocket tests a day later – a possible sign of disapproval concerning Xi’s trip to South Korea.

In a further twist, the North also continued to enjoy Japanese favour as Tokyo lifted sanctions in return for an investigation into the fate of abductees plucked by Pyongyang decades ago. The Chinese president’s visit to the South at the tail-end of the week offered an opportunity to portray all these events as coming to a head – a chance to suggest the birth of a new diplomatic framework.

Japan and China on collision course in East China Sea

That conclusion, however, has its limitations. Last week was a naked exhibition of individual ambitions, but none of those developments change the fundamental ties holding the main players back from making any meaningful steps forward.

Even viewed from the narrow perspective of the two Koreas and China, Seouls growing friendship with Beijing loses its significance in the presence of the Chinese-North Korean bond – which emboldens Pyongyang in the face of United Nations sanctions.

Few would be surprised if the North were to conduct another nuclear test to add to its third-ever last year. Even fewer would express shock if Beijing were to support North Korea regardless of punishments imposed by the UN Security Council. That is not to even mention human rights issues, such as China’s refusal to allow North Korean defectors to move onwards to the South.

North Korea repeatedly threatens Xis “blood and sweat” partner South Korea with nuclear warfare. It is in this obvious contradiction that we realise a seismic shift in regional relations is impossible without a unified Korean Peninsula. In the long run, a stronger relationship between Seoul and Beijing cannot hurt the goal of reunification, but a great deal of untangling is required before reaching that stage. In the meantime, Pyongyang is fast becoming too dangerous even for China to control.

Displays of disenchantment with Tokyo do not herald the start of a new Northeast Asian order. Instead, disorder is a more accurate description of relations in this region, where peace is for now maintained by the joint realisation that no one stands to gain anything from an armed conflict.

Alex Jensen is a Seoul-based broadcast journalist covering both domestic and foreign affairs. He currently hosts a breakfast current affairs show for South Korea’s tbs eFM and freelances for several international broadcasters and news outlets.