E. Asia: Change Partners and Dance

October 04, 1992

East Asian cold wars ceased briefly this summer while Sout Korea and China changed sides. South Korea dropped Taiwan, a country much like itself, for mainland China. The latter spurned its longtime client, North Korea, while embracing South Korea, which China had invaded in North Korea's behalf in 1950. Diplomatic normalization was followed by a high-powered visit of South Korean political and business leaders to Beijing. With the sides realigned, the cold wars resumed. But East Asia will never be the same.

The rapprochement struck much of the world as a bombshell. But the U.S. and Japanese governments were in the know and approved. North Korea had been forewarned by Beijing. The question is whether South Korea kept Taiwan in the dark until the last minute, about which they dispute. In fact, normalization was the culmination of a steady improvement of links between Seoul and Beijing that began in 1983 and promises an estimated $10 billion in bilateral trade this year.

Normalization is also a crowning achievement for South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, whose term will soon expire. South Korea reportedly won Chinese pledges not to help North Korea's nuclear weapons program, as part of the deal. This is part of a large diplomatic effort by Seoul, which hooked up with Russia first, to isolate Pyongyang into negotiating a genuine Korean unification.

For its part, China wins another recognition at Taiwan's expense and greater access to the investment capital it craves. The natural arena for South Korean investment in China is in the north, near Beijing, providing some balance to the huge lead of southeast China thanks to Hong Kong and Taiwan capital.

Both North Korea and Taiwan are jilted and angry, but they are not thrown together. Taiwan's economic policy, in the private sector, is not unlike South Korea's. Taiwanese investment is rushing into China, even while the government is aloof. Unlike North Korea, Taiwan is not isolated. Its relations are shrouded in the hypocrisy of other nations' kowtowing to Beijing, but Taiwan is flourishing.

The new link between Communist China and its former enemy, '' South Korea, looks toward the peaceful unification of both Korea and China. The two Koreas are likely to come together on South Korea's terms, eventually leading to the absorption of North Korea. China and Taiwan are much more likely to come together on Taiwan's terms, based on the track record of China's respect for Hong Kong's institutions after 1997. Taiwan resembles South Korea in the strength of its industry and capital, and the trade and technology it offers China. Unlike North Korea, it can survive friendship between China and South Korea.

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