Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Seoul on Monday for a two-day visit that is likely to focus on trade and investment but is full of political and strategic significance too. Chung Min Lee is South Korea’s Ambassador for National Security Affairs and has worked as a foreign policy adviser to President Park Geun-hye. A highly regarded scholar, his book on Asia’s strategic faultlines will be published later this year. In an interview he gave me for Rajya Sabha TV, he provided a Korean perspective on Asia’s geopolitics and India’s role in it. Excepts:
Siddharth Varadarajan: In a recent lecture here, you said the talk of the 21st century being Asia’s Century was premature, that Asia’s powers have miles to go before they can claim this century as their own. Why do you say that?
Chung Min Lee: First of all, I think as an Indian or Korean or Asian, we must be rightfully proud of the achievements we’ve made politically and economically. But if you look at the next 30 or 40 years, Asia faces humongous, unparalleled challenges in the form of great power rivalries. China is becoming a very, very important power and player in the Indian Ocean as she wasn’t before. Some of the world’s greatest failed states are in this region, you have deep pockets of poverty and demographic deficits, you have political problems. If you add all that up, it means unless Asia is able to come to terms with this problem, the so called Asian Century will not be automatic and will not be able to govern by itself.
And Asia also has five nuclear powers if you count Israel and North Korea too.
That’s right, so you have not only the Indian-Pakistani conflict which is crucial in this subcontinent, you also have North Korea, which is on the verge of miniaturising nuclear warheads as we speak and can threaten South Korea , Japan and the U.S. very shortly. You have a number of deep geo-political hotspots like Taiwan straits and Kashmir and the list goes on . So obviously it’s not just a nuclear problem, it’s a combination of all these problems.
I want to go through all these faultlines one by on so that we can get a clear sense of your thinking, perhaps the thinking of the South Korean government. Let’s start with China, which is Asia’s largest and most important power and in many ways a power that arouses the greatest amount of anxiety. We’ve seen over the last three or four years, China accentuating its disputes with half a dozen Asian neighbours simultaneously. What explains this simultaneous sharpening of territorial disputes with Japan, the Asean countries over the South China Sea, with India, even with South Korea?
First, if you look at China’s defence spending in the last 15 years, it shows that the Peoples Liberation Army is on their ‘great leap forward’ and their big goal is to ensure that in the next 20 -30 years, China will have enough military capability to not only maintain stability in this region but also, in my view, to have veto power over any other power that wants to come into this region. So obviously you have to increase your maritime presence. And if you increase your maritime presence, you’ll run into territorial disputes with the Japanese over the Senkakus, the Koreans, and the list goes on. The thing is that China now realizes that she’s at a historical moment where she can show off her military power because that has been her whole design. Over the last 15 years, as Deng Xiaoping said, “Hide your true goals until China is growing economically.” But I think the leadership believes very strongly that China is now strong enough, capable enough and now’s the time to show the world who they really are.
Paradoxically, this Chinese approach of sharpening differences with its neighbours is accomplishing the one thing that they steadfastly oppose, that is the idea of encircling China. We’ve seen how Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam – countries that have renewed anxieties of what China can do — have felt the need to reach out to each other. Weren’t the Chinese aware of the consequences of their actions ?
That’s such a great question because if you look at the fact that China shares its border with 14 countries, the good thing about China’s foreign policy is that not one of those countries is an adversary of China. But one of the limitations of the Chinese foreign policy is that not one of those countries is a natural friend.
How would you define a natural friend?
Well, for example, if India is in trouble, who will you call ? India has many friends around the world. If China is in trouble, who’s China’s best friend? Russia? Maybe Pakistan or North Korea? Those are all assets from their perspective but they are also liabilities, from the broader world. But going back to the central question, in 2010 for example, when North Korea destroyed one of our naval corvettes, 46 sailors died. In December the same year, they bombed one of our islands. And the Chinese perspective at that time was, “Look this happened, we don’t know why, but we are keeping a neutral stance.” At the same time, when the US and Korea reacted with their own exercises, the Chinese got very upset. As a result the Korean perception of China has changed. Japanese and Indian views have also changed. What is happening is that all the countries surrounding China throughout the Asian litorals are now realising that you have to really band together. Not to contain China — that’s impossible — but we should at least tell the Chinese that they are not the only one on the block.
Would you include middle powers like Indonesia or Malaysia too?
Absolutely. Especially Vietnam and Indonesia. If you look at Asean, the opinion polls there, every single major Southeast Asian country is feeling anxious over China. At the same time, every single American ally trades more with China than the US. So China has much more lverage than the former Soviet Union but the key issue is that politically all the Southeast Asian countries are feeling that pressure from China.
I’d like to drill deeper on the Korean Peninsula issue, specifically the Chinese attitude towards North Korea. China, it is said, has played a somewhat constructive role in the six party talks with the North Koreans. Some analysts credit Beijing with being able to restrain Pyongyang, to some extent, but there’s also a perception that the Chinese are running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. As a South Korean diplomat, how would you assess where China stands? Do you think the Chinese have leverage that they don’t use with the Kim Jong Un government? Or are they as helpless in many ways as other big powers ?
China is North Korea’s largest provider of economic assisstance and she provides energy and food to it and is a vital pipeline for DPRK’s entry into the global system. Having said that, I think that the Chinese have realized that North Korea is more of a liability than an asset over the long term. And why is that? For example, if you look at the future of the Korean Peninsula, it’s not with North Korea but with South Korea. South Korea’s trade with China is over $300 billion; we’ve just signed an FTA with the Chinese. More Chinese tourists come to South Korea than ever before. 70,000 Koreans study in China every single year. So the number of interactions goes beyond whatever the North Koreans have with the Chinese. But the key issue is political. They believe they owe North Korea allegiance and loyalty because of the history, and we understand that, but the key is that over the longer term, once you reunify the Korean Peninsula, who would you want to see in charge of it? A South Korea that is friendlier towards China, or a North Korea? I think the answer is quite clear.
Well on the assumption that any reunified Korean Peninsula would be an extension of South Korea or ROK, do you think the Chinese and Japanese both have apprehensions about the reunifications of Korea even if it occurs in a benign form as an extension of ROK ?
I think officially all governments in the six party talks support a unified Korea without foreign intervention and we believe at some point time hopefully, unification will occur without any bloodshed, in a peaceful way and it’ll be as you said, an extension of South Korea. What do the Chinese or Japanese want out of this ? No. 1 ) A Korean peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons. The moment the peninsula has nuclear weapons, it’ll be targeted by the Russians, Chinese and any other country. And we cannot compete with them. So for our security, we do not want nuclear weapons, period. Let’s be very clear about that. No. 2 ) No weapons that are strategic offensive systems, that’ll be a threat to the regional powers. So you will have a very strong robust defensive army but not really longer term offensive capabilities. No.3) The foreign policy must be a little more balanced. Obviously, we are very close to the Americans now. I see no change happening in that policy at all. Over the longer time, once Korea is unified, we’ll have closer ties with the Chinese. It’s just a matter of time.
Would there be any rationale to have an American military presence in ROK once Korea is unified?
I think that’s something the leadership will have to decide at that point. If you look at the ground force structure, they have 28000 troops in South Korea today in defence against North Korea. Once Korea is unified, I think the rationale for maintaining ground troops will be a lot lower than it is today. At that point we’ll figure out what type of arrangement we will have with our American allies and what type of security platform we’ll have with the Chinese.
Let’s turn to Japan now. One of the factors that has in a way muddied the Asian waters, apart from uncertainty over China, is the outlook and orientation of the Shinzo Abe government. I know that South Korea shares the apprehension of many other countries including China about the reinterpretation of the Japanese constitution to allow the use of force outside. What’s your sense of where this greater nationalism in Japan will take them?
World War Two ended 70 years ago, but did world peace come to Asia? I think, not really. And the reason I think is because as much as the Japanese are a democracy and a contributor to the UN system, they have not really understood deep inside the pain that they have inflicted on many Asian states. You have the issue of sexual slavery — these are grandmothers in their late 80s or early 90s, some fifty of them are still alive — you had slave labourers working in Japanese camps, you had medical experiments on live human beings including American prisoners of war. These are atrocious acts against humanity. So what we are saying is, look, we don’t want the Japanese to say that they accept responsibility and lets go on, but we want you to tell us it is really time to lay [down] the past so that we can all come together to form a common Asia. Every single time Abe comes out with a statement saying that they realise they made mistakes in the war ‘but we have to honour the dead in the Japanese war machine’… so from our perspective and China’s, the Japanese are not very sincere in their apologies.
I completely agree with you but let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Are we talking about history because that history is still a driving force for current day Japanese policies? Today Japan is not a militarist power. The Japanese might will say – look, you had the Tokyo war trials, which passed judgments on the Japanese regime at the time, and assigned blame to Japanese individuals. So even if Japan and South Korea or China disagree about questions of history today, is this really that important? Clearly, that history is not a determinant of Japanese policy today. Or do you think there elements of continuity in Japanese policy from then?
You know, I think, Japan is a democracy. Today, Abe wants it to be a ‘normal’ country in military and security aspects too, and I think we can all agree that Japan has legitimate security concerns, especially with the rise of China and the fact that they take North Korea’s threats very seriously. But my whole point is this: If you want a strong Japan to be independent militarily and security wise, you need the acquiescence, support and understanding of your Asian neighbours. And the only way you can get that is by coming clean on history. So for Japan’s long term strategic interest, they need to come clean on history.
Let me put it this way, if Japan or the Abe government were to embrace the kind of understanding of history that the rest of us in Asia have and if it were to make a clean break with the past, South Korea would be comfortable if Japan were to play a more strategic and extended military role in Asia ?
I think there will still be reservations, quite honestly.
So your reservations over the reinterpretations of the Japanese constitution will still remain, right?
Yes. However, I think that if the Japanese were able to reconcile history with us and the Chinese, but mostly us, the Korean perception will be OK, let’s begin to talk about the areas we can co-operate on mutual security concerns. For example, in the beginning of this year, we signed a trilateral intelligence information sharing agreement between the U.S. , Japan and Korea. So that was one small but very important step forward. There are areas where we’ll cooperate, like humanitarian assistance, UN peacekeeping operations, on regional stability, on search and rescue missions. But that type of reassurance will come and will be much greater if we were able to walk a common path on history.
Let’s look at South Korea – China relations a bit more deeply. I know that Seoul protested the declaration of the ADIZ, the air defense identification zone, by the Chinese in 2013. That zone essentially covered or overlapped with the areas that South Korea includes as part of its territorial sea or as its exclusive economic zone, including the so-called Socotra rock. I know you protested at that time but both sides have been careful not to allow this to escalate. How important is the territorial question with China? Clearly it doesn’t have the same salience as it does for Japan.
The Chinese have have territorial disputes as we said earlier with almost all major countries, and Korea is one of them. As far as we are concerned, we have this little place called Ieodo, which is at the southern tip, a semi submerged rock, and we feel that is of course ROK territory. We discussed those issues with the Chinese but for the time being, there really is no hot dispute between China and Korea on that particular issue. We both agree to disagree; the Chinese have laid down their views, we have laid down our views but there are other interests that are much more important. The other major issue that we’ve had contention with is the so-called Western Sea and there the demarcation line is with the North Koreans. But there is also a fisheries problem with the Chinese. Every single year, especially in the crab-fishing season, there are hundreds of Chinese ships that come into our water and that is a major issue. We want to resolve that with our Chinese friends but overall the territorial dispute between Korea and China is very manageable and much less important than other outstanding issues i.e. North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
India lies at the western end of East Asia and under both the previous government and Prime Minister Modi, we have become more active in the east Asian space. India is an active member of the East Asian Summit process and we have been holding naval exercises with the US, Japan, even China. How do you see India’s emerging role in east Asia and the so called Indo-Pacific region?
I can only say three words — positive, more positive and most positive. The reason is very simple, India for a very long time, from Korea’s perspective. was a very distant power. Geography defined our relationship. From the ‘90s onwards, however, there has been growing economic contact, political contact, your defence minister has visited Korea, our defence minister has had dialogues with you, our president has visited India, and now Narendra Modi will soon visit South Korea. This is part of Modi’s so called Look East Policy 3.0 and we believe very strongly that we have a very good story to tell our Indian friends. What’s that story? The key issue here in India now is ‘Make in India’, and we have shown the world what ‘Make in Korea’ means. We are both IT powers, we are both democracies, we have shared values and there is a huge complementarity between our people and countries. So India, from Korea’s perspective, is a very critical friend and partner. Why? For the first time in Asian history, China, India and Japan are all rising at the same time. And India is the only country of those three with which we have no historical baggage. So in that sense, India is a natural partner and friend.
As India moves to cement its relations with Japan, Australia, with South Korea, with the US — we saw during President Obama’s visit to India in January the release of a joint strategic vision document for the Asia Pacific region — how do we ensure that the Chinese don’t overreact to this and don’t do things which maybe unpredictable or unhelpful? They would be quick to label this as encirclement.
Well, we need to tell the Chinese, this is not an anti-China coalition. But it really depends on China’s choices. And this is what we’ll have to tell our Chinese friends. China is so powerful that whatever choice she makes resonates not only in the region but in the world. So Chinese choices, by extension, have world implications, which means that other powers must react. That’s only natural, isn’t it? China reacts to what the US and the Russians do, why doesn’t she expect India and Japan to react to Chinese actions? Also, we have shared values: India, Japan, Korea, Australia, Indonesia are all democracies and that is a very powerful voice that China will never have unless she democraticises. Democracies have very different values and that is something that China has to understand. We want to be friends with India not because we want to use India as leverage against the Chinese but because of intrinsic interest between Seoul and Delhi. That is something that China has to understand. Why? Because we feel much more comfortable — that’s the key issue — with India than, for example, with the PRC.
Are you optimistic about incipient efforts to create Asian architecture like the East Asian Summit? Are you confident that this process will go further? Asia is the only continent to lack any pan-continental architecture. Do you think the creation of such an architecture likely, or will existing faultlines act as a barrier to that?
Asia has many so-called alphabet soups. We have EAS, APEC and ASEAN by this end of the year hopes to create an ASEAN community and I think ASEAN has made a lot of progress. Will ASEAN be able to resolve these hardcore security problems? Not really. It’s not designed for that. So in Asia you have, unlike any other region, very strong, state-centric, powerful states. India, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and so on — these states have a very strong national identity that will temper, for the time being, any road towards an Asian union. But having said that, Asia does have a lot of tracks, lots of networks, so I don’t think you need to superimpose an Asian house to make sure that Asia co-operates.
Whether Asia builds this architecture now or in the near future, it’s clear Ambassador Lee that stronger bilateral ties and stronger efforts are needed to resolve the faultlines we’ve talked about and which hold the key to Asia, in a sense, realizing this dream.
Absolutely right. You mentioned the Indo-Pacific region. A couple of years ago, in the Australian defence white paper, for the first time they emphasized the Indo-Pacific. What does this mean? This means that the Indian Ocean is merging with the western Pacific. And who lies at the middle of this? India. So from India’s perspective, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific is not only India’s concern, it’s also a concern to Korea, Japan, even Taiwanese and others, and why? Because every drop of oil that comes from the Middle East traverses this particular waterway all the way up to Korea and Japan. In that sense, the Indian Ocean’s security is crucial to our wellbeing. This is why we are very positive about India’s very robust role in this region as a major naval and maritime power and we hope that we will continue maritime co-operation with India.
The video of the original interview as it appeared on Rajya Sabha TV can be seen here.
Transcript prepared by Veera Mahuli