Is it possible for a country to be a U.S. ally and a valued partner of China at the same time? Consider the Republic of Korea (ROK). At a time when Japan and the Philippines have seen their relations with China hit record lows, the ROK's ties with its giant neighbor are thriving.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Seoul, the two countries signed 12 agreements and confirmed more than 90 joint programs covering 23 areas. These substantive outcomes show that being a U.S. ally does not necessarily entail alienation from China.
China-South Korea cooperation has expanded rapidly in the past two decades. Their trade volume has exceeded South Korea's trade volume with the United States and Japan combined. In addition to this extraordinary economic interdependence, bilateral cultural exchanges have gained momentum—as evidenced by the popularity of South Korean TV dramas in China and the increasing number of students and tourists pouring into each other's countries. Moreover, China and South Korea share the goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and have worked in concert to promote regional security.
Geographical and cultural proximity, of course, have contributed to the flourishing partnership between China and South Korea. More importantly, the two countries have ostensibly discarded the Cold War mentality that pitted China against the United States and its allies. South Korea's military alliance with the United States has barely affected its relationship with China, nor is there much hype among critics in China about South Korea colluding with the United States to counterbalance the rising power. This mutual trust is remarkable given the fact that China and South Korea fought on opposite sides during the Korean War (1950-53) and did not establish diplomatic relations until 1992.
The China-South Korea relationship also is a testament to China's peaceful and cooperative foreign policy at work in its neighborhood. China is committed to forging amicable, mutually beneficial relations with all neighboring countries, regardless of their political and social systems. South Korea, a beneficiary of this policy, appears ready to reciprocate by joining hands with China to upgrade bilateral ties and confront security challenges in East Asia and beyond.
By contrast, Japan and the Philippines have fueled regional tensions as they leverage U.S. influence to gain an upper hand in their territorial disputes with China. This approach, reminiscent of the Cold War-era containment strategy, may result in their further estrangement from China.
Against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot to Asia, the question of how to deal with growing U.S. influence in China's neighborhood has become a pressing issue. Rejecting uni-polar and bi-polar perspectives in quest of win-win results—a principle that is central to the China-ROK relationship—may provide a solution to the dilemmas of traditional power politics.