A Shrimp’s Quest: Can South Korea Make Peace among the Whales?

By Tom Norris, Contributing Writer

June 2017 - “In a fight between whales, the shrimp’s back gets broken”. So goes the old Korean proverb, lamenting the country’s unfortunate position in East Asia. If the whales, China and the United States, are in conflict, Koreans believe they will suffer the most.

But, according to Qingguo Jia, Dean of Peking University’s School of International Studies, it is Korea that stands to benefit most from the changing dynamics of US-Chinese relations. By playing peacemaker among the whales, the shrimp can become strong.

Lecturing on the evolution of China-US relations and the implications for the Korean peninsula, Dr. Jia described the expected trajectory of China-US relations following the election of President Trump. According to Jia, the president’s “America First” strategy represents a refusal of hegemonic responsibility for maintaining the current international order. Vacating its position of leadership, the United States is looking to rising powers such as China to take up more responsibility. 

However, China is not ready for such a central role. Despite its unprecedented rise, Dr. Jia claims that China does not have the equivalent resources, skill, experience, or alliances necessary to fill the American shoes. Under an America First strategy, China will be unable to bear primary responsibility for protection of the international order.

Despite the initial optimism of improved US-China relations following a positive first meeting between the countries’ leaders, the relationship is certainly under threat.  Foreseeing a weakened international order, Dr. Jia, believes that the America First strategy will result in further global uncertainty and raises the possibility of a US-China trade war.

Warning of possible fluctuations in US-China relations, Dr. Jia turned to South Korea and spoke of the country’s need for flexibility in its relations with both China and the US. Although Dr. Jia urged South Korea to not take sides and be careful “not to offend anybody”, he did not recommend a path of total neutrality.        

In the context of strained US-Chinese relations, Dr. Jia argued for South Korea to bridge the differences between the countries, rather than play the countries against one another. South Korea stands to gain most from a cooperative US-China relationship and, by acting as an intermediary to help facilitate cooperation, can raise its own regional standing.

In regards to security, South Korean mediation will be especially important. To avoid another diplomatic debacle such as the crisis following the deployment of THAAD, Dr. Jia believes that South Korea must develop a balanced strategy that is sensitive to both powers.

The America First strategy and the ever-deepening security crisis pose serious problems to South Korea. To adapt to these circumstances and become stronger, South Korea must heed Dr. Jia’s words by shaking off its shrimp self-image and reimagining its role as a peacemaker among whales.