China’s Charm Offensive to Korea: A New Approach to Extend the Strategic Buffer

It is understood that peace and stability have been China’s major security interest on the Korean Peninsula for many centuries. Given its strategic location and its geographical proximity, the peninsula has been recognized by Chinese leaders as the core strategic area for protecting China’s vital security interests and maintaining regional stability. Traditionally China has identified Sino-Korean ties as “lips and teeth,” a symbolic term to refer to China’s buffer zone mentality that if the Korean “lips” are gone, then China’s “teeth” will get cold. In order to secure its own suzerainty over the buffer state, China has approached Korea based on strategic thinking of either dominating it or denying it to another power. Following this logic, China had decided to intervene in wars on the Korean Peninsula, including Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion in 1592, the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Korean War in 1950, in each case combating potential challengers.

Although China’s sphere of influence shrank to the northern half of the peninsula, due to the demarcation of Korea along the DMZ in 1953, its interest in North Korea as a strategic buffer has remained consistent until the present. Given Pyongyang’s strategic value as a cordon sanitaire, keeping the military forces of the United States and its ally, South Korea, away from the Sino-North Korean border, Beijing’s primary objective for the North has been the survival of its backward and fragile regime, over which China can consolidate its unique and dominant influence. In addition, the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed in 1961 has served as an institutional conduit to convey China’s assistance to North Korea in terms of security, economy, and diplomacy. As a political ally, economic supporter, and diplomatic patron to Pyongyang’s regime, China has exerted whatever influence and assistance it can impose, as far as these help to maintain the survival of the Pyongyang regime and, subsequently, “peace and stability” in the region.

Sino-South Korean normalization in 1992 offered another chance to modify China’s strategic thinking about the Korean Peninsula. For about four decades after the end of the Korean War, South Korea and China, enemies under the structure of the Cold War, were antagonists against each other. Given the military confrontation between North and South Korea, Beijing, as an ally of Pyongyang, limited its interactions with Seoul. However, its initiation of the reform and open-door policy in 1978 and subsequent, growing economic exchanges with South Korea paved the way to normalization. For China, one of the diplomatic consequences of the normalization has been the extension of its sphere of influence to the South. Although it has still put more political and diplomatic priority on the North, Sino-South Korean relations have continued to expand economic, diplomatic, and cultural interactions. For about two decades, China, however, has maintained ideological, political, and diplomatic ties with its closest communist brethren, North Korea, even as it has consistently increased its economic influence in terms of trade, investment, and finance over the South.

With Xi Jinping as national leader, China’s approach to the Korean Peninsula has become more dynamic. The focal point of Xi’s new approach is a charm offensive toward South Korea. Retaining the Sino-North Korean alliance, Xi has enthusiastically approached South Korea for more diverse and intense cooperation. The major objective of this charm offensive has been to upgrade the Sino-South Korean relationship as a means to spread China’s influence vis-a-vis the United States. On top of the solid foundation of building its economic influence over the South Korean market, China has sought to extend its impact over other areas of South Korean society, including the military, culture, education, and history. Recognizing the dominant US influence, China may not expect to compete for influence, yet. Given South Korea’s dependence on China in securing further economic development and managing North Korean affairs, however, a certain level of Chinese influence may have already taken root among Koreans, in the context of China’s concept of a buffer zone again beginning to include South Korea.

Status Quo in North Korea

China’s charm offensive to South Korea and its subsequent extension of a buffer zone toward the Korean Peninsula per se has been closely related to recent Sino-North Korean relations. Since the inauguration of Kim Jong-un in early 2012, China’s diplomacy has suffered from Kim’s erratic behavior and provocations, and China, therefore, has gradually lost confidence in young Kim as a reliable counterpart. The “Leap Day” agreement was one case, when China had placed great hope in restarting the Six-Party Talks after the deal, in which Washington would provide substantial food aid in return for Pyongyang’s agreement to a moratorium on uranium enrichment and missile tests, and a return of IAEA inspectors to Yongbyon. As the North proceeded with a rocket (satellite) launch in April 2012, the United States, declaring this a violation of the deal and two UN Security Council resolutions, suspended negotiations with Pyongyang. Given the nearly nonexistent potential for resumption of the Six-Party Talks, China’s sense of camaraderie with the Kim Jong-un regime plummeted.

The purge and execution of Jang Song-Thaek was another event to alienate China from North Korea. Jang, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and No. 2 in Pyongyang’s political ranking, had been a key figure in relations with its ally and a mastermind of its China business ties. Since Jang was a “China hand” and trusted by the Chinese government, his purge had concerned China for two reasons. First, there has been nobody in North Korea to replace Jang’s role as a bridge between Pyongyang and Beijing. The stunning execution of Jang deprived China of its crucial link to the North Korean leadership and deepened its concern over how to negotiate with and manage its unruly neighbor on key issues of denuclearization and economic reform. Second, China has been anxious about the stability of the Kim Jong-un regime. Given the uncertainties of Kim Jong-un’s power consolidation, most conclude that the purge of Jang could throw the state economy into confusion. After all, Jang was a principal architect of the construction of special economic zones near the Sino-North Korean border that, Beijing anticipated, would ensure North Korea’s stability.

For China, North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, has been the most embarrassing, even hugely insulting, event. In spite of China’s utmost efforts to dissuade Pyongyang from conducting it, the detonation indicated Beijing’s limited influence over the North’s behavior. Furthermore, Pyongyang’s subsequent escalation of military tensions on the peninsula has finally shown that China’s patience with its ally is wearing thin. China’s tough reactions have been reflected not only in its immediate joint drafting of the UNSC Resolution 2094 with the United States, but also in China’s unprecedented, widespread public criticism of North Korea and North Korean policies. Some Chinese analysts argued that China should make a major shift in its policy toward North Korea. Since North Korea has lost its strategic value as an ally, they claimed that China should reconsider its alliance with the communist Hermit Kingdom. In particular, an article of Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor of the Central Party School’s journal, Study Times, published in the Financial Times, attracted widespread international attention, due to his stark comments that China’s relationship with North Korea had become a liability and that China should abandon North Korea.1

Watching China’s tougher sanctions and sterner reprimands to the North, a number of international analysts have speculated on a potential policy change. Emphasizing Beijing’s unprecedentedly strong pressure, some cautiously forecast that China would undertake fundamental changes in its North Korean policy. However, recent changes in its policy and attitude should not be misinterpreted as abandonment of North Korea. Rather, these should be seen as a carefully crafted gesture by the Xi government to pressure young Kim back to the negotiating table. The key criterion to evaluate the change to the North has been whether China will countenance the collapse of its protege and neighbor. It is true that as time goes by, North Korea is getting to be more of a security liability than a security asset to China. As far as US forces still stationed in the South and US strategic rebalancing are seen as posing a negative impact on China’s strategic environment, however, China has no incentive to abandon the moribund regime, negating its strategic value as a buffer.

China’s Charm Offensive to Korea

In contrast to its passive and defensive approach to Pyongyang in pursuit of the strategic status quo, Beijing has been enthusiastic in its interactions with Seoul. Since the simultaneous leadership transition in Seoul and Beijing, both Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping have been passionate about building more cooperative and reliable ties. Rationales for marking a “new historic starting point” are many. First, there are regrets over the prickly relations during the tenure of their predecessors, Lee Myung-bak and Hu Jintao, contributing to forging an environment for rapprochement. Over the previous five years, the two states had intermittently suffered from a variety of confrontations, including Chinese violence in Seoul along the Beijing Olympic torch relay route in 2008, the Ssangyong Motor Co. strike in 2009, mutual frustration with the other’s response to the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, China’s massive illegal fishing and the killing of a Korean coast guardsman in 2011, humanitarian disputes over China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees, and diplomatic tensions over Ieodo (the Socotra Rock) in 2012. Clearly realizing the disadvantages of bilateral rifts, including the deterioration of public perceptions of each other and the inefficient management of North Korea, Park and Xi have begun a fresh stage for deepening the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership.

Second, another rationale for Chinese enthusiasm is a strategic intention to consolidate its influence over the South through a charm offensive. One of the foundations of this is its dominant economic influence over the South Korean market. For about two decades since the normalization in 1992, economic cooperation has increased at a dazzling speed. Bilateral trade has risen more than 35 times from USD 6.37 billion in 1992 to USD 220.63 billion in 2011. Except for the year of normalization, South Korea has consistently registered a massive trade surplus, which reached a peak at USD 47.75 billion in 2011. China has been South Korea’s No. 1 trade partner in imports and exports, while South Korea has been China’s No. 3 trade partner. Recently, China has attempted to institutionalize economic relations through the conclusion of an FTA. Although formal negotiations were launched in 2012, progress was uneven, due to political tensions and domestic opposition in both countries. Given China’s indispensability for South Korea’s future economic growth, however, momentum for the FTA is building. It would further strengthen China’s economic voice in South Korea, as its undisputed economic power would have spillover effects in the other arenas.

The crux of China’s charm offensive is upgrading Sino-South Korean relations, which was implemented in connection with China’s “Periphery Diplomacy Initiative,” launched at the high-level Conference on Diplomatic Work with Neighboring Countries on October 25, 2013 in Beijing. The meeting, Chinese media reported, reaffirmed that maintaining a peaceful and stable periphery remains a top priority for Chinese diplomacy, emphasizing its value for domestic economic reform. One of the most notable issues raised at the meeting was the concept of a “community of common destiny,” which promotes regional “interconnections” between China and the peripheral states. As Xi Jinping stressed, “letting awareness of a community of common destiny take root in neighboring countries,” is a guiding principle of China’s periphery diplomacy. China intends to construct a comprehensive community on the basis of trust and friendship and in the end integrate the whole periphery under its leadership. In addition, the meeting suggested that Beijing seeks to correct some recent missteps in its approach to the region, promoting China’s comprehensive influence in its periphery, and countering the US rebalancing to Asia.

Assessing the concept of a community of common destiny and its linkage with the charm offensive to Korea, one finds the major obstacle in upgrading the Sino-South Korean strategic cooperative partnership to be the US-Korea alliance. Given the predominant US power in South Korea, however, China may have no intention of challenging its massive influence at this moment. Instead, at this stage China intends to secure a bridgehead for enlarging the buffer zone in the Korean Peninsula. To consolidate its footing, China is approaching South Korea with the idea of regional integration and bilateral trust-building. A number of Chinese foreign policy analysts have suggested to their counterparts that the traditional tributary system sponsored by China is worth reviewing for its applicability to contemporary Sino-Korean relations. This can be construed as an indirect invitation for South Korea to participate in the construction of a sinocentric international order in East Asia.

Another suggestion was made by Yan Xuetong, an academic, whose views are considered to reflect those of Chinese leaders. His major argument is to form an alliance between South Korea and China. He forecasts the future international structure to be bipolar, headed by the United States and China. South Korea has to ally with China, in line with its national interests. His logic is that the US-ROK and Sino-South Korea alliances are, theoretically, compatible, as history has indicated, and Korea can declare its neutrality when its two allies fall into confrontation. He also advises that if South Korea feels uncomfortable with the term alliance, a community of common destiny may be a term to replace it. Other Chinese analysts differ from Yan’s argument, criticizing the validity of the US-ROK alliance for Korea’s future military and economic security. In meetings and conferences, they confidently claim that South Korea cannot guarantee its security and prosperity with the US-ROK alliance, emphasizing that only the addition of strategic and economic cooperation with China will lead to a meaningful future.

The final rationale for Chinese enthusiasm stems from the recent Sino-Japanese confrontation. Sparked by Japan’s decision to nationalize a disputed island in 2012, China and Japan have begun dangerous standoff and arms confrontation in the East China Sea. One-sidedly tilting toward the United States, Japan has tried to pull it into the diplomatic quagmire, imposing strategic checks and balance against the rising China. China has claimed a sovereign right to implement administrative control over the islands and nearby waters, and to declare unilaterally the establishment of an “Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ),” including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu area. Despite its longstanding diplomatic stance of not taking a position on the territorial disputes, the US government recently publicly declared that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. Watching the strengthening US-Japan alliance against itself, China has sought to reduce the US security role in East Asia in general and on the Korean Peninsula in particular, by convincing other East Asian states to put some distance between themselves and the United States.

In the same vein, China has enthusiastically approached South Korea to boost diplomatic cooperation against Japan. With a shared feeling of victimization and historical indignation toward Japan, China has attempted to form a united front against Japan’s refusal to express regret for past wrongdoings. One of the most symbolic acts of anti-Japanese collaboration was the establishment of a memorial hall to Ahn Jung-geun, a Korean national hero who assassinated Japan’s first prime minister, Ito Hirobumi, in Harbin. The Korean government had requested for many years a monument stone on the sight of the assassination; without any prior notice, China replied, all of a sudden, with the completion of a memorial hall, which embarrassed many Koreans. On the one hand, South Koreans are generally content with the current friendly relations with China, and welcome China’s enthusiastic construction of the Ahn Jung-geun memorial hall. On the other, uncertain of China’s true intentions and the purpose of its unexpected charm offensive, many are concerned that Sino-Korean cooperation against Japan is a double-edged sword for Seoul. Recognizing that trilateral cooperation is the core of the US comprehensive policy of containment, China is attempting to retard the formation of US-Korea-Japan tripartite cooperation through Sino-South Korean cooperation. China’s call for tilting further in an anti-Japanese direction, along with China, limits South Korea’s sphere of diplomatic activities, even leaving it in a deadlock.

Another form of anti-Japanese bilateral cooperation between South Korea and China would be conclusion of an alliance. The major objective of this, as Yan Xuetong indicated, is to shape the strategic balance between the United States and China, but Yan added that both countries face the same strategic threats, including North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship, potentially leading to military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula, and the negation of wartime atrocities amid growing provocations in territorial disputes by Abe Shinzo. He emphasized the necessity of an alliance for dealing cooperatively with Japan’s growing challenges. Although his idea is not currently China’s official approach, it appears to reflect, at least, China’s tacit intentions. In the face of the solid US-Korean alliance, China seeks to set up a more authoritative and structured Sino-South Korean relationship. Regardless of whether this is an alliance or a partnership, China believes that it needs to build a more official relationship, which binds bilateral relations with a more formal structure.

China’s major objective seems to be to extend its buffer zone to the peninsula, including both North and South Korea. Changes in the regional strategic environment have been a major cause for its new approach: China’s consistent rise and its renewed confidence in foreign relations, the US recession and its setback in power projection, North Korea’s perennial economic decay and the growing uncertainty about its survival, the hard to reverse deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations and Japan’s strategic and diplomatic pressure on China on the basis of a stronger US-Japan alliance, and Korea’s growth as a middle power and policy of strategic hedging between the United States and China. The Sino-Japanese standoff and Sino-US contestation are the two most compelling developments and China seeks to manage the situation by extending its sphere of influence to the overall Korean Peninsula. In particular, China’s charm offensive and subsequent strengthening of its power and influence would consolidate its diplomatic stance vis-a-vis the United States and Japan.

South Korea’s Strategic Dilemma

South Korea has always welcomed friendly and cooperative relations with China. In comparison to the earlier uneasy bilateral relationship, China’s recent enthusiastic diplomacy and charm offensive provide unprecedented opportunities for promoting substantial bilateral interactions. But China’s recent approach also poses a strategic dilemma, since it maintains a negative perception of the US alliance system, and the Chinese people, as witnessed in 2008, evaluate the US-ROK alliance as a leftover from the Cold War framework. Given the fact that the US-ROK alliance is supported by a vast majority of the public (93.3%), China’s apparent dislike of it creates a strategic dilemma. Furthermore, as dependency on China reaches around 26 percent of the trade volume, South Korea is much more vulnerable to China’s potential coercive economic diplomacy. As Pyongyang’s economic dependency on Beijing deepens, due to North Korea’s intensified diplomatic isolation, Seoul needs Beijing more in dealing with North Korea. The more importance China has for South Korea’s economic development and its North Korean relations, the more serious is Seoul’s strategic dilemma.

As the United States and China continue to be the most important partners for South Korea’s security and economy, respectively, the policy of hedging remains the most reasonable strategy for diplomacy. For Seoul, both Washington and Beijing are important partners: the US-ROK alliance functions as the central structure for security, and the South Korea-China strategic cooperative partnership cements its future prosperity. The central concept of the policy of hedging is refraining from undertaking inordinate tilting toward one partner at the cost of the other. Managing friendly and cooperative relations with the neighboring powers is the golden rule for the policy of hedging, based on maintaining a strategic balance. This is different from an equidistant policy, allowing for flexibly responding to the gravity of the counterpart in Korea’s national interests.

Following a policy of hedging, Seoul maintains friendly and cooperative relations with both the United States and China, but it puts more emphasis on the US-ROK alliance than on the South Korea-China partnership—a reflection of the public perception of strategic priorities. According to the Asan Institute for Policy Studies poll on April 19, 2014, 56.9 percent of Koreans choose the United States as a country with which cooperation should be improved, while 29.4 percent chose China. But this does not mean that South Koreans consider China unimportant. Rather, they favor managing the US-ROK alliance in a manner so as not to pose a security threat to China. The government’s choice of the KAMD (Korea Air Missile Defense System) rather than adoption of the US missile defense system is symbolic of consideration of China. As far as China’s attempt to strengthen the Sino-South Korean partnership independent of the development of the US-ROK alliance, a majority support China’s move. But China’s ambitious intention of extending its influence at the expense of the US-ROK alliance creates a serious dilemma. Given the regional strategic structure and diplomatic environment, hedging is the only strategy to be implemented; a move away from it may endanger regional security as a whole.

South Korea’s policy of hedging should be applied not only to the US-ROK alliance, but also to Sino-Japanese relations. In the wake of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute and Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine at the end of 2013, Sino-Japanese relations are difficult to put back on course. Due to bilateral confrontations regarding the issues of wartime sex slavery, Japan’s historical revisionism, and the territorial dispute over Dokdo (Takeshima), South Korean-Japanese relations have also kept deteriorating. Taking advantage of the specific situation of sour relations both between South Korea and Japan, and between China and Japan, China has energetically sought to build an anti-Japanese coalition. Unhappy with Abe’s overt, right-wing behavior, the South Korean government, on the one hand, responds to Chinese suggestions of anti-Japanese cooperation positively and tries to find new common ground on a variety of issues, including the establishment of the Ahn Jung-geun memorial hall. On the other hand, the majority of the public prefers improving relations with Japan. According to the Asan Institute poll, more than two-thirds (68.3%) agreed that this relationship should be back on track, while only 27.3 percent of respondents disagreed. Although Koreans do not forgive Abe’s right-wing rhetoric, they massively support the diplomatic detente between Seoul and Tokyo.

The discrepancy between public attitudes and current policy can be seen in the wake of Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. In contrast to the conventional wisdom, a high proportion (63.9%) of Korean citizens replied “yes” and only 26.2 percent “no” to the question if China continues to rise, should Korea increase security cooperation with Japan? The survey data indicates that on security cooperation, more respondents prefer Japan to China as a partner. These data have, at least, two meaningful implications. First, although China has been South Korea’s closest economic partner, perceptions of China are far from reaching the level of strategic trust. Second, although emotional antagonism often dominates the bilateral relationship with Japan, both countries have, at least, established a fundamental foundation of mutual trust, in particular in terms of security. Other data support the validity of this argument. Despite ongoing disputes and confrontations with Japan, more than half of the public (57.1%) support the trilateral US-ROK-Japan framework for strengthening security cooperation. Only 29.8 percent of respondents prefer Sino-Korean security cooperation. Although a majority of the public acknowledges China as the strongest economic partner, they do not now recognize China as a security partner.

China’s charm offensive and its desired extension of the buffer zone to the Korean Peninsula as a whole is a rational strategy from the point of view of its strategic calculations. There are a number of factors to draw China into pursuing greater access, including irreversible decline in Sino-Japanese relations, lingering South Korea-Japan animosity, and North Korea’s continuing deterioration in stability. China’s strategy of extending the buffer zone aims to upgrade the Sino-South Korean relations, while keeping Sino-North Korean relations stable. At the current stage, China seems to have limited expectations about competing with the United States for influence. Given the firm foundation of the US-ROK alliance in society and China’s growing influence over it, South Korea needs both powers for stable security and consistent prosperity. Thus, a policy of hedging is the optimal approach. Although conceding the similarities in anti-Japanese sentiment in both South Korea and China, the South Korean public has no incentive to paralyze relations with Japan, as China has done. Joining anti-Japanese activities, the South Korean government is not as enthusiastic as China is. A majority of citizens support hedging between the United States and China and between China and Japan.

As Sino-US relations further deteriorate amid pressures for joining in closer trilateral security ties with the United States and Japan, is South Korea’s hedging policy sustainable? Is it likely that China’s charm offensive will be suspended as the goal of turning South Korea into part of a buffer proves difficult to achieve? Will new North Korean provocations improve the climate for hedging—dependent on Sino-US relations—or make hedging untenable? Recent thinking in Seoul has taken satisfaction in the diplomatic successes of 2013-2014 with both Beijing and Washington, but the regional security environment has been deteriorating. Hopes for continuing an active diplomatic posture with optimistic expectations need to be examined in a new context. The very notion of hedging must be subject to deeper analysis as countries along China’s periphery from Northeast Asia to South Asia are all struggling with challenges that they had optimistically anticipated just a short time ago would not arise. What makes Seoul’s situation unique is the priority of dealing with Pyongyang, but that also leaves it vulnerable to how Beijing and Washington respond to a new crisis that Pyongyang may provoke. Hedging will be easier if Sino-US cooperation in the face of such a crisis prevails.


China’s new approach to Korea is a clear reflection of its traditional strategic mind of buffer zone mentality. The major objective of its status quo oriented North Korean approach and its South Korean policy focusing on a charm offensive is to extend its comprehensive influence over the Korean Peninsula. China’s confidence in its national capability vis-a-vis the United States, its snarling ties with Japan and ASEAN neighbors, and its uneasy relationship with the Pyongyang regime forced it to come up with the charm offensive to Seoul. South Koreans, however, evaluate China’s charm offensive ambivalently. They welcome economic co-prosperity with China and diplomatic cooperation on North Korean affairs, while they are concerned about China’s potential challenge to the US-ROK alliance. Since the core of China’s buffer zone mentality is the exclusivity of its control over the peninsula, China’s charm offensive to Seoul may result inevitably in a zero-sum situation for Seoul. Although the policy of hedging may guarantee South Korea’s national interests for the time being, the Seoul government, in the meantime, has to find a long-term diplomatic strategy to convince China that South Korea with its US alliance still suffices as an efficacious buffer zone.


1. Financial Times, February 27, 2013.