IT IS China’s least edifying diplomatic strategy, and it is certainly not from “The Analects” of Confucius or from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”. Call it the doghouse approach. If China does not like what you are doing, it bullies you until you change. If you don’t, it punishes you by putting you in the doghouse. If you still refuse to change, it pulls you out again after a suitable term of punishment, pretends all is normal, and expects you to be grateful.
South Korea is the latest country to endure the cycle. This year its holiday island of Jeju, along with the best-known scenic spots in Seoul, the capital, have been free of the usual throngs of loud, jostling Chinese tour parties. The emptiness has been, let’s be frank, a delight. But for South Koreans, it is a sour pleasure because China wilfully ordered the tourists and their spending power away—a sort of reverse punitive mission.
The Chinese government also found ways to punish South Korea in China itself. K-pop bands were barred from performing. Lotte, a huge South Korean conglomerate with stores across China, became the biggest victim of a state-backed boycott by shoppers. The Hyundai Research Institute in Seoul estimates the cost of China’s vindictiveness to the South Korean economy this year will be $76bn, equivalent to 0.5% of GDP.
South Korea’s crime must be shocking. Yet it was simply to move to defend itself better against the menace of North Korea by accepting American anti-missile batteries known as THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence. China’s intense displeasure over THAAD was based on the notion that the radars could monitor China’s military activity. (Lotte was singled out for punishment because, in a land-swap agreement with the South Korean government, it supplied the site for a THAAD installation.)
China’s solipsism in elevating its self-serving concerns above the existential threat that North Korea poses to the South seemed, to many South Koreans, a case of extreme bullying. After all, one reason why North Korea is close to a nuclear breakout is because China for years turned a blind eye to its nuclear project, and even used to protect the North from censure at the UN.
Yet a curious thing happened after the last of the planned THAAD systems was put in place, following North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear device, its sixth, in September. On the fringes of the UN General Assembly in New York, Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, who in the summer had hectored his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, was suddenly all sweetness and light, making it clear to her that China wanted to resume cordial relations. And so, this week, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will call for a new leaf to be turned when he meets his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, on the sidelines of a regional summit in Danang in Vietnam. Mr Moon will agree.
Another part of the doghouse strategy is to claim victory. The Chinese press claims the South Korean side made big concessions, including, allegedly, a promise not to undertake further THAAD deployments, or join America and Japan in an anti-China alliance. South Korean officials are adamant that no such promise was made, beyond an indication that the government has no current plans for more THAAD deployments. As for a putative alliance, that was never on the cards, they say. South Korea does plenty with Japan and America in defence, including joint training in Japan. Ties with China affect none of this.
Mr Xi, boosted at home by a recent Communist Party congress, is in a strong position to seek better relations with South Korea. And he has good cause to want them. He must have considered that having lousy relations with both Koreas hardly looks adroit—especially since both China and South Korea seek the same goal, namely, to bring the North to talks. Mr Xi may have worried that Chinese surliness might push Mr Moon, who feted Donald Trump in Seoul this week, even further into the American camp. And what of the possible damage to China’s image? Mr Xi’s talk of a “community of common destiny” for mankind is risible if China is acting like a playground bully.
The proverbial shrimp between whales
The question is how inclined South Korea will be to pretend nothing happened and resume cordial relations. After all, because of its churlishness, China has even bumped Japan from bottom place in South Koreans’ perceptions of other countries. That position may not prove permanent. South Koreans know they need to get on with China, their biggest trading partner. As John Delury of Yonsei University points out, the South’s differences with China over THAAD lack the emotive force of its history wars with Japan, the former colonial overlord.
Still, South Korea is on its guard where once it was trusting. And ancient memories are resurfacing. Koreans have long had a sense that, though China is often to be admired, it has over the centuries treated Korea as a vassal state or a prize to be coveted. And hard-wired into the Korean psyche is a sense that nothing goes well when big powers clash over the Korean peninsula.
In that sense, history is making a comeback in Korean perceptions. This autumn’s blockbuster has broken all film records in South Korea. “The Fortress” chooses an unlikely backdrop for a hit: the 17th-century rise of the Manchus, who came out of the northern forests, challenged the Ming dynasty that had ruled China for nearly three centuries and set themselves up as the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty.
On their way to China’s conquest, the Manchus invaded Korea, partly to use it as a base from which to continue attacks on China. The core of the film is a human drama about the dilemma faced by Korea’s Joseon dynasty: whether to maintain loyalty to the failing Ming and fight to the death, or accept the new order of the rising Qing for the sake of peace. Substitute America for the failing Ming, and China’s Communist Party for the rising Qing, and you can see why the film has touched a nerve.
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