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U.S.-South Korea Ties Strengthen as China Shirks Responsibility

Consequences of the Cheonan Attack
13 July 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

U.S. Navy photograph by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Richard J. Brunson

On Friday, the UN Security Council came out with a weak statement that failed to assign blame for the attack and sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March. China and Russia declined to participate in an international inquiry, watered down the Security Council statement, and now willfully look the other way as North Korea continues denying its involvement. The Council’s statement mentioned the results of the internationally-backed inquiry that showed a North Korean torpedo was responsible, but that was all.

Frankly, Korean president Lee Mung-bak failed to take advantage of the considerable leverage he had to press China to take a harder line against North Korean provocations. Lee made the understandable decision to reassure investors by ruling out military retaliation early on. But in doing so, he also took away what appears to be the only thing that would change China’s calculus on North Korea: the possibility of major escalation.

The United States and South Korea are drawing China’s attention in another way, which may yet have some effect. The two countries are drawing even closer together, with President Obama–perhaps unwisely–calling the U.S.-Korea alliance the “lynchpin” of Asia-Pacific security, which is the kind of term one would expect to hear of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Obama has finally started laying the groundwork to get the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement, negotiated under the Bush administration, through a reluctant Congress. China has reacted quite negatively to the planned U.S.-South Korean naval exercises, originally scheduled to take place in international waters in the Yellow Sea last month–a sign of China’s concern with the closeness of Obama and Lee, and the two militaries.

I don’t think the U.S.-Korea alliance can ever reach the potential of the U.S.-Japan alliance–Korea is simply far too cautious, and far too close to China, to take the kinds of risks that Japan would be willing to take, for example, in defense of Taiwan. But still, as North Korean unpredictability grows, the United States and South Korea are likely to work together more and more closely.

Just as North Korea is becoming more aggressive, China is beginning to define its core national interests more aggressively, too–now including its absolute sovereignty over the South China Sea, despite all the associated maritime territorial disputes. But signs of aggression or aggressiveness in such an important region–whether from North Korea or from China itself–will only serve to increase the American military presence in the region. China could prevent this by toning down its rhetoric and leaning harder on its North Korean ally.

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