“Any attempt by China and South Korea to coordinate in picking apart past history unnecessarily and making it an international issue is utterly unhelpful for building peace and cooperation in the region.” Yoshihide Suga, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s head of cabinet, did not mince his words. Equally understandable were the underlying motivations that inspired them: the outcome of Xi Jin Ping’s trip to South Korea. For the first time, a Chinese president went to Seoul without stopping in Pyonyang first, while President Park has still not met the Nipponese premier. Protocol—which counts much more in Asia than in the west—has signaled a shift that could herald a resounding change in alliances. Ever since the Korean War (1950-53), China has been allied with North Korea, where it sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The antagonism toward South Korea was automatic in the logical coherence of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War brought Seoul and Beijing closer together, even if Pyongyang’s protection remained solidly in China’s hands. After the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, China and South Korea have seen their economic relationships multiply. Investments beyond the Great Wall exploded, just like the levels of imports and exports. China has been South Korea’s number one trading partner for 10 years. Today, Korean is the most diffuse foreign language spoken in China’s coastal metropolises after English. Xi’s visit also produced ulterior results: initialing economic agreements, creating financial products in renminbi for the South Korean market, and the commitment to reach a free-trade agreement. Not by chance, Xi led a delegation of 250 high-level Chinese business people, including Alibaba’s famous Jack Ma.
In any case, the biggest news came from the political arena. The joint declarations, where were guided by the most complete identity of views, found immediate targets in Japan and North Korea. The former (China’s rival and now South Korea’s lukewarm ally) is accused of being unwilling to reconsidering the past, marked by the annexation of Korea, the invasion of China, and the imposition of brutal regimes in both countries until the end of the Second World War. The support given to China in the dispute over the islands contested with Japan emerges clearly (the Senkaku/Dyaoyu). The latter (South Korea’s enemy under obligatory Chinese protection) is by now a source of embarrassment and unwieldiness for Beijing. Not surprisingly, the joint statement issued in Seoul demands the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, intending that Pyongyang must renounce its nuclear threats. In the face of this unparalleled convergence between China and South Korea, Japan and North Korea have reacted analogously even if in an obviously less structured manner. Shinzo Abe has decided to reduce some of the sanctions on North Korea and to facilitate negotiations for the release of Japanese fishermen detained in North Korea for years. Furthermore, he started the revision of the pacifist constitution that foresees the use of the army alongside allies in military operations. Here, the intention to lean on the United States in case of escalation is evident. At the same time, North Korea has launched a pair of missiles in an effort to reiterate its determination and dangerousness.
It’s not an upheaval of the past, but it breaks the dogma of its inviolability. You cannot speak of new alliances because the old ones are inadequate. Tokyo never imagined that it would share interests with Pyongyang, and Japan knows it would be a deadly embrace. For this reason, the new relationship between Seoul and Beijing is strong, growing, and far from negligible. In fact, the messages it’s sending are emerging clamorously from the background. The White House is the recipient, and the invite is twofold: Asia needs peace and prosperity, therefore it’s time to restart talks with North Korea over their nuclear arsenal and to consider that Japan’s defense need not be the sole priority. The Cold War is over and the fate of Asian countries can be negotiated—even if it is still undecided—by the Asian countries themselves.