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Three nots seen behind China's sudden thaw with South Korea

Seoul's reaction to missile defense could invite rift with US, Japan

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei Seoul bureau chief | China

SEOUL -- The recent agreement by South Korea and China to mend a relationship strained by a U.S. missile defense system could mark a shift in an Asian power balance that long pitted Seoul, Washington and Japan against Beijing.

The deal announced Oct. 31 -- just days before U.S. President Donald Trump's Asian tour kicked off -- seemed to do little more than reiterate views South Korea had previously expressed, such as acknowledging China's concern the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system could threaten national security.

That Beijing would soften its stance so easily after 16 months of tensions aroused suspicion in some quarters, with South Korea's Joongang Ilbo newspaper likening it to a sudden end to a "dark, endless tunnel."

Unwritten concessions

The key to understanding the deal lies with Foreign Affairs Minister Kang Kyung-wha's answer to a lawmaker's question at a parliamentary hearing the previous day. Kang said that South Korea would not deploy additional THAAD units or participate in a U.S.-led regional missile defense system, and that security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan would not develop into a military alliance.

In the three months of negotiations between the Blue House and China's Foreign Affairs Ministry that produced the deal, the two sides agreed to have Kang publicly explain these "three nots," rather than commit them to paper. The lawmaker who asked the relevant question is known to favor China and visited the country shortly before the hearing.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has reason to seek a speedy rapprochement with Beijing: the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, which he hopes to make a "peace Olympics." Moon aims to have Chinese President Xi Jinping attend the opening ceremony of the games -- now less than 100 days away -- and use this as leverage to persuade North Korea to participate.

With the "three nots" in place, China agreed to South Korea's request for a bilateral summit at this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting and began arranging for Moon to visit the country within the year. If the deal draws Seoul into Beijing's orbit and weakens the trilateral partnership with Washington and Tokyo, the diplomatic and security benefits to China could be significant.

Just days after the agreement, in a Nov. 3 interview with Singapore-based Channel NewsAsia, Moon emphasized China's importance and said he would pursue "a balanced diplomacy" with both Washington and Beijing. He has echoed China's preference for a peaceful resolution to the North Korea problem while expressing reluctance to participate in the "free and open Indo-Pacific" strategy advocated by Japan and the U.S.

The text of the agreement made no mention of economic retaliation by China over the THAAD deployment, nor to the harm it caused South Korea. Conservatives have lambasted the deal, with the largest opposition Liberty Korea Party calling it the product of "humiliating" diplomacy and the Chosun Ilbo newspaper saying the government "capitulated" to Beijing.

Alliance at risk

The arrangement casts a shadow over South Korea's security partnership with Japan and the U.S. as well. Some military experts worry that China will interpret the agreement not to form a "military alliance" as extending to military cooperation in general and seek to drive a wedge between Seoul and its partners.

South Korea and the U.S. had just pledged a few days before the deal to work together more closely to contribute to regional peace and stability. Taking China into consideration could widen the gap between Seoul and the more hardline Tokyo and Washington.

In the Channel NewsAsia interview, Moon acknowledged the importance of the trilateral partnership while warning that South Korea "would not welcome" Japan taking "the path of military expansion in the name of North Korea's nuclear weapons."

Closer ties with Beijing could lead to diplomacy with Tokyo "dropping down South Korea's list of priorities, sapping momentum from reconciliation with Japan on historical issues," an expert on South Korea-Japan relations said.

With tensions still running high on the Korean Peninsula, the "three nots" could rankle the Trump administration. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters from Asian media outlets that he did not think South Korea would "give up its sovereignty in those three areas," adding that he did not see Kang's comments as "definitive" policy positions. These comments hint at alarm at the prospect of Beijing being allowed to interfere in the East Asian security order being built by Washington.

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